by Ashley Kuenstler
When you step foot inside the O’Fallon Worship and Community Center, the first thing you will notice is the smell.
If you allow your nose to guide you, you’ll weave your way through tiled hallways until you find the source. And on this particular day, it was roasted chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and freshly baked bread.
“It’s almost intoxicating,” said O’Fallon Shelter Manager Peggy Sherwin. “It’s a host of smells that take me back to when I was a kid in the South, playing on the sidewalk and smelling the chicken from inside my grandmother’s house.”
These are the types of reactions Ayla Rashad works every day to provide to the families of the O’Fallon shelter. Through some kitchen appliances, cooking utensils, and a variety of ingredients, Rashad has been serving up comfort to shelter residents for five years.
“Her food gives a sense of comfortability, security, and warmth that are so important to our shelter families,” said Sherwin. “Those aromas remind them of home and of better times; a perfect environment to get their lives back on track.”
Rashad creates home-cooked meals twice a day for approximately 30 people. Each meal consists of a meat, vegetable, starch, bread, and dessert – all from scratch. And on Fridays, she works double-time and prepares meals for the entire weekend. If you ask her to talk about this seemingly stressful job, she will illuminate the room.
“This isn’t a job, it’s me doing what I love every day of my life,” said Rashad. “Cooking is just what I’m meant to do; it’s my purpose. The only part that makes it a chore is the dishes.”
“One time a family of six was staying in the shelter and they were all vegetarian,” she said. “I had never cooked with tofu before, so I went into my kitchen and didn’t come out until I could cook meals they could eat, too. I think they were shocked to be in a shelter and have someone cater to them.”
Employees and clients alike agree that Rashad is the facility’s cornerstone, bringing people together around a dinner table for fellowship on a daily basis. When it comes to her cooking, there are only two things she won’t do: make boxed meals or use a microwave.
“I just can’t use it,” she said with a laugh. “I tried cooking minute rice in the microwave before, and it came out inedible. I couldn’t do it right. You want some rice? Give me a pot and some boiling water and I’ll make you some rice.”
During her tenure with the shelter, Rashad said her role was put into perspective when a neighbor from her childhood was a resident there.
“When I saw her in the shelter, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I mean, I knew this girl growing up; I knew her entire family. And I realized I could help her. I could help take care of her with the food I was making.”
“She loves engaging with the residents and genuinely cares about they want and need,” Sherwin continued. “You will find so much when you visit her kitchen: amazing food, plenty of laughs, fellowship, and that feeling of comfort; you’ll just never find any leftovers.”