Jazmin Flores, 11, takes a break from dance classes at the Kids Unlimited Day Camp for lunch. The Kids Unlimited food service program started Monday. - Bob Pennell

There is a free lunch

A breakfast of cereal, pancakes and milk helped Keesha Myers hip-hop dance all morning at Kids Unlimited.

To tide her through an afternoon of swimming, the 10-year-old eagerly chomped through a meatball sandwich.

"I love it here," Myers said.

Myers and about 100 other low-income kids partook Monday in the first meals served from Kids Unlimited's new kitchen, which concluded a year-long remodel at the Medford after-school center. Food is available to everyone enrolled at Kids Unlimited, but an adjacent center for homeless and runaway youth puts a hot meal within reach of kids who need it most, said Executive Director Tom Cole.

"Now we can offer food," Cole said. "Now we can do other things."

Outreach workers have spent the past three weeks visiting local homeless shelters, motels and other areas of Medford to identify homeless children and teens and to connect them with Kids Unlimited. Kids who have nowhere else to turn can eat, shower, put on clean clothes and receive other services at the Riverside Avenue facility.

"We're just trying to get a pulse on how desperate the need is," Cole said.

About 30 homeless kids are attending Kids Unlimited's eight-week summer camp free of charge, said Kelsey Davy, who heads the nonprofit organization's student outreach services. But she and other workers are hoping to attract any transient family to the program, she said. Scholarships are available.

"We didn't want money to be an issue," she said.

The social services center is open to homeless and runaway youth of school age, including college, provided they are enrolled, Davy said. More than 1,200 homeless students attended Medford schools last year, she added.

When school starts in the fall, dinner service will begin at the new kitchen, christened for Northwest Community Credit Union. The credit union donated $150,000 and worked with more than a dozen local building suppliers to outfit the space. Licensed through Jackson County Environmental Health, the industrial kitchen will soon host culinary arts classes and certify kids as food handlers.

A food pantry could be added to the center once Kids Unlimited works out details with ACCESS Inc., said Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager for the county's food bank.

"We'd love to support them if we could," Yates said.

Most ACCESS pantries are required to serve the general public, not specific groups, Yates said. However, ACCESS recognizes that some young adults and teens may not know how to obtain food stamps and are slipping through the cracks, Yates said, adding that ACCESS already collaborates with Community Works' drop-in homeless center.

Homeless kids can use Kids Unlimited's social services center during off hours if they link up with an outreach worker, Cole said. Staff will strive to offer meals seven days a week, he added.

"We're going to have an obligation to really keep it open as long as possible," he said.

A $72,500 grant from the Reed and Carolee Walker Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation paved the way for construction of the social services center, which is still trying out formal names. Cole said he believes local funding sources will follow once Kids Unlimited demonstrates need.

Kids Unlimited leveraged more than $1.5 million in donated labor, materials and cash throughout its remodel, Cole said. Leftover funds will be used later this year to improve the building's exterior and grounds, he said.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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