Cooking up success: Kids at Work program builds culinary and life skills

LEARNING TO COOK: Makiyah Suber, left, and Anareya Lee participate in a cooking class through the Kids At Work program. The 16-week course employs interpersonal coaches and culinary instructors to provide at-risk teens with positive experiences that teach social and leadership skills.
LEARNING TO COOK: Makiyah Suber, left, and Anareya Lee participate in a cooking class through the Kids At Work program. The 16-week course employs interpersonal coaches and culinary instructors to provide at-risk teens with positive experiences that teach social and leadership skills. Photo by Hannah Clark

Sometimes the recipe for success can involve an actual recipe. Kids at Work is a nonprofit organization that takes at-risk youths ages 12-17 and teaches them culinary skills while building character and preparing them for the job world. 

The program, which operates in Haywood, Buncombe, Henderson, Polk, McDowell, Transylvania and Rutherford counties, was created in 2009 by Kim Castano, director of Aspire Youth & Family. Kids at Work meetings take place after school one evening a week for 16 weeks, allowing students opportunities to engage with both interpersonal coaches and chefs.

Though a majority of participants are court-referred, others are recommended by school counselors, local therapists or their parents. Given that most kids enter the program due to negative circumstances, the goal is to provide a positive and life-changing experience for them.

“A lot of times, the population that we work with, they’re not normally privy to experiences of success,” says Hannah Clark, an interpersonal coach for Kids at Work. “So our program becomes one of those venues for kids to be successful and kind of adjust that vision that they might have so they can reach those higher goals that they have in life.”

Breaking down barriers

The Juvenile Crime & Prevention Councils and the Governors Crime Commission are the two main sources of funding for the nonprofit program, which is why court-referred youths are served before other referrals. Aside from funding, the biggest challenge to the program is getting kids to be open to the program itself. Clark notes some will enter proclaiming, “I don’t want to be here. I have to be here.” The program aims to overcome that perception. “That’s one of the barriers we have to break down,” says Clark.

Rhiannon Cole, a 17-year-old graduate of the program, can relate. During Cole’s freshman year of high school, she was put on probation for truancy and was court-ordered to complete Kids at Work. 

“The first day going into the group I cried,” says Cole. “I was terrified to be doing something out of my comfort zone and being surrounded by people I’d never met before. I didn’t even talk to anyone because I was so shy. Hannah talked to me and helped me through that day and made sure I was comfortable with everything.” Eventually, she says, she opened up, became more talkative and began to look forward to attending each week. “But most importantly, I knew it was a safe space, and I felt comfortable and, in some ways, at home there.”

Ultimately, the experience changed her life in positive ways. “The program is an amazing thing,” she says. “It teaches at-risk teens cooking skills, [and] it teaches them social skills, team skills, leadership skills, and they help you when it comes to job résumés and job opportunities. All in all, the group is one big family, in my honest opinion.”

Kids at Work uses the Say It Straight curriculum. A typical meeting involves interpersonal lessons, group check-ins and cooking instruction followed by a family-style meal. Since many participants don’t get real meals on a regular basis, food comes first if the kids are hungry. 

Students are taught to make homemade ramen, soups, pasta sauces (marinara and Alfredo), tacos, pizza dough, veggie and beef burgers, stuffed peppers, spaghetti squash, California sushi rolls, meatballs, ribs and many chicken dishes, says chef instructor Whitney Rosenblatt. They also learn to create desserts such as brownies, cookies, chocolate ganache and homemade whipped cream.

“The students are expected to learn knife skills, a variety of cooking methods — poaching, baking, grilling, sauté, roasting, braising — kitchen conversions, different cuts of meat and where they come from on an animal, the five flavors that we experience and how to combine them to make tasty food, and nutrition, including the importance of protein, fruits and vegetables,” says Rosenblatt. “They also learn how to read recipes, prepare a balanced meal and how to work as a team from start to finish.”

At the end of the 16 weeks, there’s a graduation ceremony. Students receive certificates and get to choose the menu for the event. Later, graduates can return as leaders and implement their new skills. 

Labor of love

For Clark, who volunteered with Kids at Work for a year before being offered a staff position, Kids at Work is a true labor of love. “Growing up, I was a troubled youth; I was an at-risk youth,” she says. “I had my daughter when I was 15. I was always put in that stereotypical category. I wasn’t given those opportunities, and I didn’t feel like I mattered. I remember I had an English teacher who … noticed that I was doing good in school … and her just recognizing that meant the world to me. … That feeling is something that these kids experience when they come to group.”

Rosenblatt echoes Clark’s sentiments. “As instructors, we’ve all gone through our own battles and came to Kids at Work for very different reasons, and our experiences are just as valid,” she says. “They love hearing our stories as we love hearing theirs.”

Cole says her favorite thing about Kids at Work is the compassion the instructors show participants. “They always helped out the students when they needed advice, someone to listen, or if they just needed a hug,” she says. “They do everything they possibly can to assure you that someone cares about you. They always make sure that you enjoy your time there.”

Rosenblatt adds: “All these kids who are isolated and think people don’t understand what they’re going through, they learn quickly that their peers understand because they’re all going through these same really difficult transitions in their lives.”

To learn more about Kids at Work, visit aspireyouthandfamily.com/kidsatwork. Donations to the program can be sent to Kids at Work, P.O. Box 250, Balsam, NC 28707.

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About Laurie Crosswell
I am a freelance writer for all subject areas as well as a film critic. Follow me @lauriecrosswell

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