Article and photo by Urban Alliance staff.

When friends or family gather around a table for a home-cooked meal, inevitably memory making and a level of connectedness are added to the menu. And, for dozens of teens and youth leaders who participate in The Hartford Project (THP), a summer urban ministry immersion experience in New England, “home dinners” provide the perfect platform for learning, growing and building relationships.

The goals of home dinners are to help show THP participants the benefits of urban living, open their eyes to see Hartford as a vibrant community where they might choose to live, and provide meaningful ways for participants to engage in topics of social injustice. 

For Caitlin Leffingwell, hosting a home dinner has been a highlight of her year, for six years so far.

“Hosting a THP home dinner is literally the biggest highlight of my year, for about a thousand reasons,” she shared. “It’s a chance to witness and foster the growing faith of teenagers, to feel my own faith encouraged by the youth and their leaders, to witness to my neighbors when explaining why so many kids came over for dinner, to join with my brothers and sisters in worship and prayer, and to introduce others more personally to the city I love.”

This year, Leffingwell, who attends Hartford City Church, hosted a group of youth and leaders from two churches, Trinity Covenant Church in Manchester, Connecticut and Westfield Evangelical Free Church in Westfield, Massachusetts. And, while this was one opportunity for youth and leaders to connect, the 4-day THP experience provided many more chances for these groups to interact and build relationships with other youth groups from Hartford and surrounding communities.

Plus, as part of Urban Alliance’s Next Generation initiative, which works to help churches and ministry organizations reach and serve youth so they develop the character, relationships and skills needed to succeed in their schools in communities, Hartford-based youth groups were invited to apply for a scholarship to subsidize the cost of THP and help connect youth in need of assistance to the experience. This year, 48 youth were awarded scholarships. 

While the connections may begin at the table, often they extend well after the dinner finishes up. 

“After our dinner and neighborhood walk this year, we took turns asking and answering questions,” said Leffingwell. “Several students expressed how nice it was to enjoy a home-cooked meal together, and they definitely seemed to bond while playing tag at the local park and exploring the neighborhood. One youth from a suburban church noted that our walk helped him to understand how we are all human, and how much was similar to where he lives, and how people are just people wherever you go.”

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