Devoted supporters of the Treasure Coast Girls Coalition weathered an inspiring, albeit wet, Ribbon Cutting to launch its TCGC Food Cart, an initiative of the nonprofit organization. Not even a torrential downpour could dampen spirits at the event, held at the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce.
Founded by Shala Edwards in 2021, TCGC supports economically disadvantaged girls from ages 9 to 18 through STEM-focused (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) afterschool and summer programs.
Edwards said the food cart is an “educational expansion to the program,” meant to build confidence in the girls as they gain experience by managing all areas of service, including food preparation, ordering and interacting with customers.
She explained that students first participate in an in-person classroom training segment, before graduating into the actual physical classroom, where they work in the concession cart to develop the soft skills needed to work with actual customers. The menu will have a seasonally rotating menu, along with graze boxes, freshly popped popcorn, handcrafted beverages, snacks, hot dogs and hamburgers.
“It is a community service project that will allow all of the community to take part. We’ve been very intentional about community outreach over the past 18 months, but this allows us to go into every part of the community. We don’t have to wait for the community to come to us. We can go to them,” said Edwards.
Relying on her own former experience as a food and beverage manager, Edwards said the girls will gain skills and self-confidence as they mingle with the public.
“Many of our students look at the ground when we interact with them. They’re not used to handshaking and are not ready for job interviews. We are preparing them to take on the world,” said Edwards.
“One-hundred percent of the proceeds from this truck goes directly back into our programs to support our mission. When you purchase a bottle of water, or a bag of popcorn, or a soda off this truck, the return on your investment is amazing. For every dollar you invest in youth development programs, there’s a $13 return.”
Edwards said that while the creation of TCGC had been a longtime goal of hers, she was motivated to move quickly as she watched the struggles of students who lacked the digital literacy skills needed to navigate the online educational platform thrust upon them amidst the pandemic.
“We couldn’t wait. There was an urgent call to action,” she said.
Their summer pilot program focused on those digital literacy skills and the girls’ overall well-being.
“We saw the social and emotional decline in children from the isolation of being home and unable to socialize with their friends during the pandemic,” explained Edwards.
Collaborating with community partners, the girls toured Florida Atlantic University, participated in a Sea Turtle Nesting STEM Camp with the Barrier Island Sanctuary in Melbourne Beach, and a technology workshop at United Against Poverty. Other collaborative partners included a Junior Achievement program and TRiO (federally funded outreach program) at Indian River State College.
“In communities of color, STEM is very underrepresented in women,” said Edwards. “The largest gap in STEM professional careers are women. We make up less than 30 percent of the workforce in STEM. We want to make sure we start reprogramming that mindset.”
Their curriculum features digital technology and emotional intelligence training, self-management, confidence and character building, relationship skills, mentorship, coping mechanisms, leadership, interpersonal skills, responsibility and decision-making.
Edwards hopes to empower the girls, so they have equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in careers that narrow the gender pay gap, enhance economic security, and ensure a diverse and talented workforce.
She also announced the establishment of the Mildred Scholarship Fund in honor of her grandmother, which was established with seed money from the Vero Beach Rotary Club.
Donations to the fund will provide scholarships for girls to attend TCGC by covering registration costs.
The Treasure Coast Girls Coalition meets three days a week during the school year at Gifford Middle School. The food cart will make its culinary debut on Sept. 30 at the Main Street Vero Beach Downtown Friday Street Party.
For more information, visit treasurecoastgirls.org.
Photos by Joshua Kodis