When times are tough, sometimes it’s the little things that mean the most. A home-cooked meal or a custom birthday cake can bring joy. Two recently launched Loudoun organizations are filling bellies and creating community—one meal and one cake at a time.
Creating Community with Lasagna Love
Sonia Ballinger and Samantha Keats are the founders of the Loudoun chapter of Lasagna Love, a nonprofit that connects home cooks with folks in the community who need a hot homemade meal. Lasagna Love serves low-income families or anyone else who can use a home-cooked meal, whether it’s because of job loss or non-financial challenges like illness or bereavement—or simply a single parent having a tough time. The idea is old-fashioned community building through food in an increasingly detached world.
“We really are a grassroots organization nationally, spreading the love neighbor to neighbor and providing that home-cooked meal,” Keats said.
The national Lasagna Love nonprofit was launched in May 2020 by Rhiannon Menn in response to COVID-related challenges in her own community in San Diego. Keats, who lives in Sterling, got involved with the Northern Virginia chapter as a lasagna chef. When she posted about the program on a Sterling community page, Ballinger, a longtime Sterling-based community advocate got on board. The women launched the Loudoun chapter in February of this year and have already coordinated dozens of deliveries. Ballinger focuses on outreach, getting flyers at local libraries and businesses, spreading the word at playgrounds and other community meeting places and working with local nonprofits.
“It was perfect timing and it’s been a wonderful partnership,” Keats said.
The Loudoun chapter now has 100 local lasagna chefs on board and covers the entire county, delivering meals as far west as Charles Town, WV, with up to 30 meal requests each week.
Lasagna Love offers an online portal to connect individuals who need a meal with chefs. The Loudoun group has also partnered with nonprofits, including Mobile Hope, which serves young adults experiencing homelessness. Homemade Lasagna Love mini-lasagnas have become part of the weekend meals that Mobile Hope delivers to its clients, Ballinger said. Organizers are also developing partnerships with the local Salvation Army and the regional Catch a Meal Program.
And you don’t have to be anything close to a professional chef to sign up. Anyone with a desire to help can get involved, and organizers have even helped walk first-time lasagna makers through the process.
“They’re so eager—they want to help,” Ballinger said. “It just touches my heart. … People are in so much need right now, and we just want to give.”
For more information about how to request a meal or get involved as a chef, go to lasagnalove.org or email the Loudoun chapter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cake Love from Cake4Kids
Baking enthusiast Dottie Swanson launched the Loudoun chapter of Cake4Kids last August. Cake4Kids also is a national nonprofit launched in 2010 to provide special occasion cakes and treats for children in need, including kids in shelters and foster care. The concept is to connect volunteer bakers with children to bring sweetness and joy to special occasions in the face of big problems like homelessness and job loss.
“Think about your life—you have a cake for every event. … Some of these children have never had a birthday cake,” Swanson said. “To know that there’s somebody in their community that they don’t know, that they’ll never meet made them a custom birthday cake. It helps the children, and it helps the family, too.”
Swanson, who lives in Willowsford, is a hobby baker whose passion for baking was passed on from her grandfather, a cook in the U.S. Army during World War II. Swanson got involved with the Cake4Kids Northern Virginia chapter as a baker and volunteered to coordinate the launch of the Loudoun chapter last year. Cake4Kids doesn’t take direct orders. Instead, the organization works with social service agencies around Loudoun to match clients with bakers, including the Sterling-based nonprofit INMED Partnerships for Children.
“They’re doing an amazing job,” said INMED’s Rosa Tobar, who adds that for many of her clients, a personalized birthday cake is a luxury they can’t afford, as COVID-related job loss and other factors create challenges. Tobar helps coordinate cake pick-ups for her clients and said she was especially touched when one young client got the LOL doll cake of her dreams.
“Her eyes just opened wide as soon as she saw it,” Tobar said.
Cake4Kids now has 75 Loudoun-based bakers on board and another 75 in the region who deliver to Loudoun. Volunteers are mostly home bakers, but the group includes professionals too. Bakers offer gorgeous and delicious cakes, along with brownies, cookies and other goodies for graduations and other special events. Since launching last summer, the group has delivered 115 “bakes” of all kinds and is ready to serve more kids through partner agencies. Swanson says that as new volunteers come on board, the chapter is ready to take on additional agency partners and hopes more organizations will reach out so that she and her bakers can help brighten special days for more Loudoun kids.
Swanson says that when she’s baking for Cake4Kids, she often puts two days into each project.
“A lot goes into those cakes,” Swanson said. “Driving away after delivering a cake, it is so worth it: the joy of knowing that I’ve helped a child on their birthday.”
For more information, go to cake4kids.org/our-chapters-loudoun. Caseworkers and volunteer bakers can also contact Swanson at email@example.com.