Life is not what happens to you, it’s what you make of it. 

Khadijah is busily cooking dinners for what she hopes will be almost 20 people. She has carefully set up sterno trays along her dining room table. She is preparing turkey wings, parmesan encrusted salmon, fried fish, beef short ribs, baked macaroni and cheese, and collard greens just to name a few. Meals were packed and served with a choice of corn bread or a dinner roll. She named her business “Ken’s Kitchen” after her daughter, Kennedi, and titled the menu, “Soul Food Sundays.” Their slogan is, “We specialize in cooking with love, and want our customers to feel loved and valued.”

She priced each of these dinners between $10-$14. She created a flyer with the menu and the prices. She posted it on Facebook and Instagram. She texted it to her contacts and emailed it to friends and family. “Hey you guys. I’m selling dinners, if you’re interested.” She thought she would sell maybe 10 dinners.

“I have no money. My bills are piling up. I’m just stepping out on faith.” One of her cousins even donated money the first time to help her buy the ingredients.

People came and picked them up from 1-7:30pm. “I packed them in trays, and put them in bags that said, ‘I appreciate your kindness’” She ended up selling over 60 dinners, and earned $200 beyond the set up.

“It’s a good thing I bought 20-quart pot. If I hadn’t bought that pot, I would have been making those collard greens forever! They take four hours to cook!”

“A lot of people came that I didn’t know – through word of mouth and people from my church. It surpassed my expectations. My goal was to give people what I would want to have. I wanted to make sure people were satisfied with their food. One woman told me after that her husband loved my food so much that he told her if he wasn’t married, he would marry me!”

She also donated two of the dinners. “If we’re the city of Brother’s Love, people should be able to have a meal.”

On Thursdays, she mentors at SCI Chester men’s prison. Recently she sat with a prisoner who said to her, “I feel like a failure. My whole life has been a failure.” She told him, “You are not what you did. There’s a God that loves you. He loves you so much, he sent me here to talk to you.”

She is passionate about the non-profit she started in 2018. It’s called A Dream Deferred Foundation. Its mission is to help prisoners rebuild their lives when they re-enter society.

“I just want to help people because I know friends and family who have been affected.” Her cousin was incarcerated at 14 for over 20 years, her uncle was in jail for 6 years, and one of her close friends, who she’s known since she was 19, is currently in prison now.

“Mass incarceration impacts everyone, families and friends, and overall public safety. People grow up with childhood trauma and abuse, a school system that fails them, and they live in impoverished communities. They’ve learned the only way for them to thrive is through drug dealing and violence.”

“When they are released from prison, independence is forced upon them like a normal person when for years they’ve been fed, clothed, and housed. There are so many barriers to getting employment. They try to do something different, but it doesn’t work so they go back to what they did before.”

“And they are still dealing with the trauma they suffered as a child, and now they’re also a felon. The system doesn’t provide you with that second chance. There needs to be a holistic solution that begins with healing the trauma, and resources to be successful, and redemption. We need to produce healthy citizens. This affects all of us.”

She’s been applying for grants and working Philadelphia Re-entry Coalition to collaborate with communities in the city, and planning events to raise awareness. “Philadelphia has a 76% recidivism rate and it’s 84% nationwide.”

Khadijah’s faith sustains her, and she lives her life with a dedication to other people and a joyful and optimistic approach to life. She said, “If we cared about people like we cared about ourselves – we’d have a much better society.”

Khadijah treats others the way she wants to be treated not because she’s had it easy. She hasn’t. . . especially in the last year.

Khadijah is a first-generation college graduate. She owns a home, has a daughter, is active in her church. She has close friends and family. Since 2013, she worked for a large cable provider as a Retention Support Specialist in Human Resources. In the spring of 2019, she was having sharp chest pains and she couldn’t bend down. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 Thymoma. She thought she might be having a heart attack. A cat scan showed a 3×6 centimeter tumor around her heart.

She knew firsthand that management frowned on people taking leave, but she was approved to take short-term disability from May 30-July 13th. She started chemotherapy that June, once every three weeks for a six-hour cycle.

As a result of the chemo and her three different medications, she was in constant pain and suffered with extreme fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. She suffered with headaches that felt like her head was on fire. She lost all of her hair, and her nails and tongue turned black. At the end of each three-week period, she began to regain her strength, but the suffering returned after the next six-hour cycle.

She applied for an extension on her disability through September, but never heard back. Since the leave was the recommendation of her doctor, she was certain it would be approved. Although she began to get behind on her mortgage, she didn’t worry. She thought, “Of course this is going to be approved.”

She started to feel better towards the end of September, and she was feeling ready to go back to work at the end of the month. Instead, she found out her appeal for extended disability was denied and she was fired. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “How many other people have a medical condition have to go through this? You never realize it until it’s you. You never think it could happen to you. They didn’t even send me a card. I felt as if I was not important at all. I just didn’t understand it. They’re such a big company.”

Physically she began to get stronger, but her financial situation continued to deteriorate. She still couldn’t pay her mortgage, and then her car was repossessed.

She knew she needed to start thinking of creative ways to generate income. She had always wanted to open her own café, and she figured one way to start was to introduce people to her cooking. This idea led her to begin to prepare and package meals in her home. She figured if she ultimately wanted to open a café, she would need to learn to cook for a large number of people.

Khadijah applied for a forbearance for her mortgage and filed for unemployment. She is still looking for employment, but she is also thinking of how she can build upon her three very successful Soul Food Sundays.

Khadijah’s still cooking. She’s been busy experimenting with healthier options for diabetics and those eating low carb diets to accommodate the needs of her customers. She’s using monk fruit sweetener to make desserts, and preparing dinners such as zucchini alfredo with shrimp, salmon quesadillas, butternut squash “pasta” with turkey meatballs. She has assured her customers, “One thing for sure, you’re going to eat good!”

Despite all that she’s been through, Khadijah says, “I appreciate the experience. It opened my eyes to things I hadn’t seen before.”

She is still volunteering at the men’s prison and passionate about her non-profit that she started in 2018. She named her foundation “A Dream Deferred Foundation” because she believes, “just because your dream was deferred, you should still have an opportunity to fulfill that dream.”

According to Dijah, “A dream deferred is still a dream.”

She’s been knocked down, but she’s still dreaming.

“It’s about loving people. It’s about loving someone who doesn’t have the capacity to do something for you. It’s the feeling you get about helping someone else. I’m not a victim. What happened to me was bad, but someone else also has it a whole lot worse than me. It’s all about caring about the person next to you. If you can even have one kind conversation, you may be able to say something that uplifts their spirits. If you pour out that love, it comes back tenfold to you.”

Khadijah fully realized these truths when her dad died two years ago. “My grief was so extreme, I could not function. I had a house, car, possessions, but I was a mess on the inside. I couldn’t buy anything to make this pain go away. Outside I looked okay, but inside I was dying.”

Khadijah wants to help everyone who might feel like they’re dying on the inside. Right now, she is doing that in whatever way she can. For now, it’s with a meal, and by sharing her story.

You might want to go to Khadijah’s Love Café, but sadly it is not yet open for business. She has had other matters to attend to.

But like she says, a dream deferred is still a dream.

Until then, Khadijah’s life is her love café, and kindness is on the menu. She’s serving a little bit of what we all need.

Words by Beth Pandolpho, Photos by Tony Juliano…

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