A company all her own

Nation and World

by Jan Gillis ('07)

Photo of JMU alumna Alissa McLaughlin

By Martha Bell Graham

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After putting herself through JMU by working retail at Harrisonburg’s Valley Mall, plus volunteering with Young Life, a campus organization, plus completing majors in communication studies and computer information systems, Alissa headed to New York City where she worked as an event planner.

But Alissa is a Philly girl at heart and missed the city she loves. She returned to her city and in 2010, after years of hard work — which also included cleaning houses — and lots of serious saving, Alissa struck out on her own. She started her own event-planning company, Radiant Matter. From the beginning, she had three goals: to start and run her own company without incurring debt; to support the local economy; and to provide jobs. Alissa succeeded in all three — although she admits it hasn’t been easy. “Event-planning years are like dog years,” she says, good-naturedly. Today Radiant Matter employs 50 people, including 15 full-time staff, and has established national clients such as EY (formerly Ernst and Young) and Oracle.

One more important goal

But Alissa had one more important goal. She wanted to give back to the community she loves. She noticed a huge population of kids in inner-city Philadelphia who are hungry and angry — “hangry kids” they’re called. “A lot of the kids in this bracket will grow up to work in the food industry, many of whom will pursue careers in the hospitality field,” Alissa explains. The area is filled with hotels, restaurants and a large convention center, all supporting a vigorous hospitality and tourism industry. Why not give them a head start?

"In our city, people who are of greater means can afford to eat healthy and prepare balanced meals....The simple fact is that produce is sometimes too expensive for people on fixed incomes."

She approached Mick Kaye, the director of the MAC, about starting a program to help kids. He was interested, and in March 2012 Small Fry was born.

Every week Alissa teaches kids to cook and eat healthy. “Some kids didn’t know what brown rice was [when they first came to Small Fry]. Now they’re talking about quinoa,” she says. She also teaches kids how to shop wisely, cook creatively on a budget, and she strives to send the children home with a meal or two for their families each week. Small Fry also keeps them off the streets and creates a sense of community in a population that needs a “continuity of care,” she says. “Many are from single-parent homes or foster care.”

Alissa, Small Fry and the MAC have developed a friendship and mutual trust. The center works with her to fit Small Fry into their 365 days of programming that includes African dance, crafts and an urban youth basketball league that is more than 50 years old. “I feed them. They dance them and play sports with them,” she says. Along with cooking, the children’s math skills and reading skills are bolstered by calculating and reading recipes. For Alissa, Small Fry is about much more than food. It’s about helping kids learn to interact positively. It’s about helping families establish healthy lifestyles. It’s about shoring up a community. It’s about pre-training kids, many of whom will be the future of the local food service and hospitality industry. It’s about consistency and stability. It’s about giving back. It’s about being the change in a community she loves.

Learn more about the JMU people who are making a difference in the world on the Be the Change blog.

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Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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