Valerie Mena has worked almost every restaurant job there is.
She's been a waitress, a hostess, an assistant manager, a manager, and now she's marketing director.
Valerie, a Hilliard resident, also is only 12 years old and will start eighth grade in the fall.
The precocious preteen is one of 137 children in Hilliard who are getting on-the-job experience long before they are old enough to work.
That experience comes through a free summer-lunch program. Instead of just serving up food and a few low-key activities to the kindergartners through eighth-graders who get a free lunch in the summer, Serving Our Neighbors Ministries in Hilliard also has the children serving the community.
Each Friday, 67 children are bused to the Hilliard Church of Christ at noon. They hurry up and eat the lunch provided to them and then start preparing tacos, rice, guacamole and more to serve to community members.
While the children's meals are funded by the government, the meals they prepare for community members are funded by donations, usually from the diners themselves, said Sarah Florimonte, development and communications associate with SON Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit group that hosts the summer-lunch program and the children's "restaurants."
At 1 p.m., teachers, city officials, parents and others arrive.
A hostess in pigtails hands each person a menu and seats them. Then the children scurry around, taking orders and filling them, making sure everyone has silverware and a drink, and chatting with the patrons.
It's called Taco Bell Jr., and it started in 2012. The restaurants now are included at all three free summer-lunch programs in Hilliard.
At 10 a.m. on Wednesdays, students serve at HoRIZE 'n Shine at Horizon Elementary School, 6000 Renner Road in west Columbus, and at 1 p.m. on Thursdays community members can catch children serving at Casa de Friends at Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church, at 3500 Main St. in Hilliard.
Valerie and the others take great pride in the fact that the restaurant is run by children. There is adult supervision, but the children do all the planning and decision-making.
Her role as marketing director means she keeps "the vibe of the place."
"I try to make everything look pretty," she said. "I make everyone look their best and act their best."
Valerie's mother, Gabriela Paredes, is proud of her daughter and her son Hugo, 14, who is the manager.
Paredes was dining at the restaurant on a recent Friday with one of her younger children, Ian Mena, 3, by her side, happily munching on tortilla chips.
"They love it," she said. "They come and have lunch and have fun with friends. ... They learn a lot of good things from it."
More than 500 children are fed at the three programs and about 137 participate in the entrepreneurial restaurants, Florimonte said.
"Every year, they get better at it," said Hilliard City Councilman Les Carrier. "I think it teaches them how to interact and to learn a skill."
Carrier said he goes to Taco Bell Jr. every year.
"Talk about a taco, these kids know how to make one," he said.
In addition to good food, Carrier likes the program because of the skills it teaches kids and the fact that it gives them something constructive to do.
"It's really made an impact in our community," he said.
Kim Emch agrees.
Though she founded SON Ministries and its summer-lunch program in 2009, she credits a group of children with creating the restaurants a few years later.
As she tells it, a group of older children frequently was getting into trouble during the summer-lunch program. They admitted they were bored.
Their idea? To start a restaurant.
Emch agreed and the group shook on it, setting the following Friday as its opening day.
When Emch walked in that first day, she said, she didn't know what she'd see. She certainly didn't expect a young boy in a three-piece suit to welcome her with a handshake.
"I cried," Emch said. "I had never seen anything so amazing."
Those interested in dining at one of the three child-run restaurants can make a reservation at son-ministries.org. Emch said the remaining dates for the summer are July 13, 14, 19, 20 and 21.
Meals are free, but donations are accepted.