WESTERLY — When the 13 youngsters from Tower Street Community Center's summer program hopped off the school bus and scrambled up the steps at Ocean House, and then entered the grand lobby, they were greeted by the hotel's top brass.
Ocean House President and Group Managing Director Daniel Hostettler, Executive Chef Matt Voskuil, Director of Culinary Education Tim Meyers and Director of Public Relations and Marketing Laurie Hobbs stood ready and waiting on Tuesday morning to guide the children — all campers in the the Westerly Public School's Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative — on their second culinary adventure in and around the Watch Hill hotel, a Forbes Five-Star resort.
"I'm so excited," said 11-year-old Ava Lidestri, a student at Westerly Middle School, as the tour began. "I love food."
"I'm excited too," said a smiling Aliza Guido, 10, another middle school student.
The campers' schedule included a stop at Seaside Terrace (the hotel's new vegetarian restaurant with oceanfront views) for warm, fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies served by pastry chef Donna Yuen; a walk through the Club Room; a visit to Below Deck for house-made doughnuts and penny candy; a journey to the beach for ice-cold strawberry smoothies at Dune Cottage, and the final stop, in the ballroom, for lobster, oysters, little necks drizzled with lemon butter and a lesson about food, nutrition and sustainable shellfish farming.
The Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative is a six-week program that offers Rhode Island children a learning opportunity combining hands-on experiences with real-world applications, such as career readiness. The United Way of Rhode Island oversees the program. Fourteen sites are operating at 10 communities across the state: Central Falls, Cumberland, Newport, North Kingstown, North Providence, Pawtucket, Providence, West Warwick, Woonsocket and Westerly. Typically, the programs focus on service learning, which helps build essential skills, such as civic-mindedness and citizenship.
"Westerly is very fortunate to have so many choices for kids in the summer," said Joan Serra, Tower Street Community Center's director of family and community relations. "And fortunate to have so many community partners."
"We try to create as many options as possible for children to have real-world opportunities, but we also want them to have fun and to play," she said.
So far this summer the students have planted and harvested vegetables in the Tower Street Community Center garden, and made veggie burgers from the produce.
"We're out in the garden a lot," she said, stressing that the Hasbro-United Way initiative was created to "mitigate summer learning loss."
Research shows that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, lose up to two months of math computational skills during the summer, while children from lower-income households may also lose up to two months of reading skills, according to the Sandi Connors of the United Way. "High-quality summer learning programs ... can reverse summer learning loss by offering engaging, hands-on learning opportunities that build children’s academic, social-emotional, and essential skills," she said.
For Hostettler, who employs more than 500 local residents throughout the year, the visit was also a way to plant ideas about future employment and to stress the hotel's community involvement.
"How would you like to become chefs some day?" he asked the campers as they made their way to the hotel kitchen.
Voskuil, who, like Meyers, was dressed in a crisp white chef's jacket, said that when staff members from Tower Street contacted him about the joint venture, Ocean House was all in.
"The end goal is to keep their minds engaged for the summer," said Voskuil.
And to teach kids about the importance of eating fresh, local food, added Meyers.
"A lot of Americans are generally disconnected from our food sources," said Meyers, who also serves as the Ocean House food forager. "We've been working with local farmers and fisherman so we can show kids where food comes from ... where the shellfish comes from."
"This group is really interesting," said Voskuil. "They're very talkative and they ask a lot of questions."
Meyers said, "They are interested in the details."
Earlier in July the Tower Street campers spent time at the Weekapaug Inn and Avondale Farm and were taught about the nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants found in organic food.
They also learned the difference between "Go Foods" (eat plenty) and "Whoa Foods" (eat sparingly), said Patrick Straus, who joined the group in the Ocean House ballroom at the tour's end. Straus is the co- founder of Freshconn, a virtual farmers market that partners with the Weekapaug-based Ayers Foundation in the Tower Street summer program.
"Whoaaaa" said the campers in unison after Straus held up a bag of candy and asked, "Whoa or go?"
Straus, who spoke while Voskuil and Meyers placed the oysters, lobsters and clams on the tables, said that in addition to learning about the nutrition, the visit was also an opportunity for campers to think about the different jobs at the hotel and the variety of career opportunities available.
"One day you could come and work here," said Hostettler as the children watched the two chefs carefully open the oysters and place them on small white plates. Together, the children and the adults listed the names of the jobs held by the people they visited in the tour.
"We visited one kind of farm a few weeks ago," Meyers reminded the campers. "Oysters come from a different kind of farm. These oysters come from a farm nearby in Winnapaug Pond."
"It's important that we are good stewards of the ocean, and good stewards of the land," Meyers said.
While reactions to the oyster sampling were mixed, nearly all the campers praised the crustaceans.
"I love lobster," Brayden Whitney, 11, a student at North Stonington Baptist Academy, said as he cracked open a big red claw while his friend, Michael Ramos, 11, looked on. "But it's so squishy."
"I used to go out fishing with my dad," put in 9-year-old Samantha Giorno, a student at St. Michael's School as she pried open a lobster claw.
"This is just amazing," added Courtland Burdick, the site coordinator for the summer camp as she watched the children's reactions. "It really is a treat. It's our best field trip yet. It's so nice for the kids to get out to so many different places."
"I want you all to know you can come back here anytime," Hostettler told the students as the tour came to a close. "We have all sorts of events here and we really hope you'll come back."