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New cooks in the kitchen

She’s just 17 but already Elisangela Silva is a master in the kitchen, especially when it comes to preparing the traditional Cape Verdean dishes she’s been making with her mother at their Dorchester home since she was 8 years old.

Now, with the help of a recent Northeastern graduate, the promising high-school junior is sharing her masterful cooking skills with her peers, teaching a weekly cooking class at the Catholic Charities Teen Center at St. Peter’s in Boston.

Every Wednesday afternoon, Silva and Sarah Lamm, SSH ’12, teach a group of high schoolers — all of whom play a part in prep, cooking and cleanup — to cook meals that are tasty, affordable and, above all, healthy.

“I was thinking about my family’s health first, then I started thinking about other kids at St. Peter’s.  They can do this, make a healthy dinner for their family,” Silva said.

Lamm wound up at St. Peter’s via Nicaragua, where last summer she led a group of teens from Boston and New York through a group called Global Potential, an organization that aims to empower individuals and communities through education, international service work and global cultural exchange. Through that organization, Lamm worked with Silva and other teens in the field back at home, when students based at St. Peter’s planned and orchestrated service projects based on what they learned abroad.

Lamm continued working at St. Peter’s in the fall, through a service-learning class taught by Gia Barboza, assistant professor of African-American studies and health at Northeastern. She was able to work more closely with Silva, and armed with a modest sum of grant money and outsized ambition, the two started working on a plan that would empower Silva and her peers to prepare and cook tasty, healthy and inexpensive meals.

“Now these students are able to make these meals on their own, and every Wednesday they’re feeding 200 people at the center,” Lamm said.

The first few weeks of meals focused on Cape Verdean staples like creole chicken (many of the teens at St. Peter’s hail from the African island nation, a large number of whom have settled in and around the Bowdoin Street area of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood). Later meals were more traditional American offerings, like lasagna, pizza and chicken.

“She’s been cooking these dishes more than half her life and she’s really made this project her own,” Lamm said of her mentee. “I’ve really seen Elisangela become a leader here, starting to delegate to make sure everything gets done.”

The teen center, run by Catholic Charities and supported by a multitude of organizations in and around Boston, provides a safe haven every afternoon for Boston middle- and high-school students — many of them of Cape Verdean descent — complete with academic resources, college counseling, health and wellness classes, competitive sports and other active opportunities.

Students in service-learning classes at Northeastern conduct thousands of hours of community service — nearly 13,000 hours in this past semester — in partnership with dozens of organizations like St. Peter’s. Professors like Barboza tailor their curricula so that student work involves active engagement with the community.

“A lot of these teens aren’t having their needs met: They’re not always eating well, they’re not always safe,” said Barboza, who is also a faculty fellow at Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research. “Having a stable place in the community can do so much to help these kids.”