One of Kinesha Roach’s fondest memories growing up was visiting her Grandma Johnson’s house in Kansas for the holidays. Not only was the spread of food abundant, but the warmth, welcome, and love shared by everyone there was undeniable. In fact, she’d bring friends with her just to experience that type of hospitality. It’s that depth of connection and community that everyone feels when coming to O.U.R. Gathering Place. “O.U.R.” stands for outreach, understanding, and relationships.
O.U.R. Gathering Place, founded by Roach, hosts dinners for families with special needs children and adults. The idea for the organization sprouted from the challenges she and her husband experienced when dining out with their family. As a parent of children with special needs, Kinesha believed she was not alone. The simple act of dining out has proven to be difficult. She and her husband Jarell have four children: John (16), Karia (9), Jeremiah (8), and Karley (3). Jeremiah was diagnosed with autism before the age of two and is mostly non-verbal. Karia’s special needs took longer to diagnose, but both children received early intervention and occupational therapies.
However, dining out for Jeremiah still poses problems—the music might be too loud, the lighting not quite right, or Jeremiah might jump or screech—eliciting stares, whispers, or laughs from other diners. “We’ve experienced all kinds of emotions that no family should feel when you’re just trying to take your family out to eat,” Roach said. “It was frustrating, and I knew if I was having these feelings, other parents must be having them too.”
Having worked in special education, earned a culinary degree from the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College, and owning a catering business, Roach’s affinity for serving others, especially through hospitality, is a natural fit. Last spring she pitched her idea for O.U.R. Gathering Place to the Omaha SOUP: Community and Crowdfunding event. She won a grant for $560, which she used to host the first community dinner last June at the La Vista Community Center.
A second dinner was held last November at the Charles E. Lakin YMCA in Council Bluffs, and an upcoming dinner will be held April 20, 2019, from 11:00am-2:30pm at the Butler-Gast YMCA in Omaha. The dinners are free, but goodwill donations are accepted. Roach said she tries to find locations that are willing to have the event for low or no cost. Each venue must be wheelchair accessible with wide open spaces, such as with a gym, so that all children have plenty of room to move around.
“I want to continue to create a judgement-free dining experience for families,” Roach said. “As parents of special needs kids, we simply share a mutual understanding.” Jennifer Rupprecht, whose three-year-old son, Sam, has autism, said it’s a “blessing” to be able to eat out as a family. “It’s wonderful to be surrounded by other families who understand the challenges that eating out can present,” she said. “And it’s a great opportunity to connect with other ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) families.”
Roach said she’s been incredibly surprised by the response. Each dinner had more than 150 people attend. Even a few young adults with special needs attended with their parents. Papillion and Bellevue Chick-Fil-A restaurants donated kid-friendly nuggets to each dinner. Roach’s concern for various dietary needs encouraged her to provide gluten-free and vegan options as well. During each meal, parents have time to connect with each other, kids are able to play—a sensory room is available each time—and families can enjoy activities such as making affirmation signs. “It’s the special needs community coming together and having that feeling that we’re not alone,” Roach explained.
The dinners are made possible through grants and donations. Roach has been fortunate to have a team of volunteers—some whom don’t even have special needs kids—help each time. Her sister, Karissa, and husband, Jarell, are also key to the success of O.U.R Gathering Place, as are the families who attend.
Roach’s dream is for O.U.R. Gathering Place to have its own center where they can not only hold regular dinners and provide educational opportunities for parents, but house other services that families would need, such as physician and dental clinics, which are places that also pose challenges for special needs kids. She’d also like to be able to provide employment opportunities for teens and young adults with special needs. Kinesha also welcomes restaurants that are interested in hosting dinners as well, which will provide a traditional dining experience. But for now, Roach just wants others to remember to be kind. “If you see a special needs family while you’re out and about, extend them grace. Say hello or share a word of encouragement. Understanding people who are different from you goes a very long way.”