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Culinary school teaches kitchen skills to local students

Chef Geoffrey Roper instructs students on proper knife work during a Kids At Work! culinary program in Lincolnton on Wednesday.

Staff Writer

A new program for at-risk children in Lincoln County sponsored by Kids At Work! began last Wednesday in the kitchen at the James W. Warren Citizens Center. The course, which meets once a week, teaches children aged 12-17 basic culinary and interpersonal skills. Currently operating in 12 western North Carolina counties, this is the first time the culinary school has been offered in Lincoln County.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, the school systems and the community refer children to this program.

“If kids get in trouble at school, say there’s truancy or they’ve been caught with marijuana or doing something else wrong, school resource officers usually file charges against them and they wind up in front of a judge,” Kids At Work! district leader Lori Gerber said. “The court counselors will ask for them to go into our program before they are changed with the crime. If they finish the program, the charges are dropped.”

The class, which takes a maximum of 10 students per session, lasts for 16 weeks and, once they graduate, they have the opportunity to apply for jobs or internships at restaurants. The recidivism rate for children who attend the culinary class is approximately seven percent, according to Gerber.

A curriculum called “Say it Straight” is used in addition to the culinary lessons, which teaches interpersonal skills. Each class lasts three hours and begins with an hour-long group counseling session. After that they go into the kitchen and start cooking. Once the meal is cooked, they all sit down and eat together family-style. After eating, they clean up.

A big part of the culinary program is teaching the children about nutrition. Geoffrey Roper, a trained pastry chef, is teaching the culinary portion of the program in Lincolnton. He teaches basic kitchen safety and professional skills such as classic French cooking, preparing the mother sauces and how to make stock and soups.

“It’s always really good to see when a kid first comes in because they are very apathetic and don’t want to be here,” he said. “It’s understandable because they are in a bad situation. Usually, when kids stay in the program they open up more and make friends. To be in a kitchen you have to be a team and work together so it forces them to communicate with each other.”

Many of the children, when they first come to the culinary program, have no kitchen skills – some are even afraid of knives, according to Roper. In addition, a lot of them don’t receive proper meals throughout the day. This program helps them to be able to look after themselves in the kitchen. They learn simple tasks like how to boil water and more advanced skills like how to put together a complete meal from what may be in their refrigerator or pantry at home.

There’s a small graduation celebration for each person who completes the 16-week program.

“If these kids are adjudicated and this is a part of their probationary program, they’re being forced to come here,” interpersonal coach Hannah Clark said. “We like to make a big deal when they finish because it’s huge. Anything that you’re forced to do for 16 weeks is imperative that these kids feel the success of that because that is hopefully the first of the many successes of their lives.”

Sometimes, after the 16 weeks, the student doesn’t want to leave the program so a graduate role was implemented so that these children could continue to come to the class but in a different role, either working on the interpersonal or the culinary portion.

“It can’t be just anyone, it has to be a kid that’s ready to take that next step,” Clark said. “There’s a contract that the child and their guardian must sign and we decide how long the timeframe is and we pick a goal for them to accomplish during that timeframe.”

Kids at Work Program operates under Aspire, Youth and Family, Inc., a 501c(3) nonprofit organization. In order to operate the program, Kids at Work Program has received private donations and is grant funds from Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils and several other grand awards throughout the State of North Carolina. For more information, call Gerber at (828) 226-5533.

Image courtesy of Michelle T. Bernard

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