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Cooking for a Cause

Sandy Amato, a trained chef, utilizes her confectionery skills to help others.

The children were excited. After all, they were making cupcakes.

But the recipe had a twist, Sandy Amato, a private cooking instructor, told them. Instead of regular chocolate cupcakes, she was making chocolate zucchini cupcakes.

“They all thought that was bizarre,” said Amato, “but, of course, they loved them.”

SIX YEARS AGO, Amato, a nine-year Reston resident, began volunteering for Neighbors United / Vecinos Unidos (NUVU) in Herndon, helping mostly with various after school or tutoring programs. “But she also provides cooking lessons for the children,” said Vanessa Murphy, a coordinator at Safe Haven, one of NUVU’s programs.

In recipes from hummus to fruit pizza, Amato has passed on some of her secrets, but the children, she said, have as much fun preparing the food as they do eating it. To date, the enchilada casserole has been the biggest success, Amato said.

Amato’s classes are not always limited to cooking. “She took the kids to the grocery store and taught them how to read labels and understand the nutrition contents,” said Murphy, adding that Amato often emphasizes healthy eating in her classes.

On most days, though, at least once a week, Amato volunteers at NUVU’s Neighborhood Resource Center.

Amato, 39, often helps with homework, things like spelling, math and social studies. She said the work is rewarding because of the relationships she builds. “That’s what we’re there for. We encourage the kids to try their best,” said Amato. “They get that I believe in them.”

Amato also helps spread an important message developed by NUVU: All children can succeed, no exception.

“Sandy is one of the best volunteers we have,” said Murphy. “She’s a real asset to the organization.”

NOT LONG AFTER finding out her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Amato got involved in Reston Relay for Life. Ever since, she’s participated in and volunteered for the event to help raise money for the American Cancer Society. When her mother died in 2003, Amato formed her own team.

“We walk every year in memory and honor of her,” said Amato.

Earlier this year, Amato’s contributions to the community were recognized when Volunteer Fairfax nominated her for a Direct Service in Education Award. While she did not receive the award, being nominated is considered a great honor.

Debra Steppel, who first met Amato eight years ago when they lived in the same cluster, has had the chance to sample some of Amato’s cooking. “She’s a fabulous pastry chef,” said Steppel.

But what strikes Steppel about Amato is her dedication to various causes. “She has a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm and brings that to everything she touches. When she takes on a project, she gives 110 percent,” said Steppel. “We’re really lucky to have her in Reston.”

For Amato, the volunteer work is something everybody can do. “I think we have a responsibility to do it,” she said. Recently, she’s seen one of the students she tutored several years ago come back and join her as a volunteer. The kids aren’t just learning school work, said Amato, they’re learning the value of giving back.