Sweet talk: Kilwins Cares For Kids program brings chocolate to Asheville schools

CHOCOLATE BUZZ: Asheville Kilwins owner Marcy Gallagher, left, and local clown Ash Devine, right, give a fun lesson on chocolate to students at Leicester Elementary School. Photo by Cindy Kunst

It’s a clear, breezy morning in early April at Leicester Elementary School. With a cheery yellow sun overhead peeking from behind puffy white clouds that skip across a bright blue sky, and horses and cows dotting nearby pastures, the scene could easily translate to a child’s drawing. Inside, at the school’s front desk, the secretary calls kindergarten teacher Tamara Brown‘s classroom to come to the office. “There are some really weird-looking people here to see you,” she laughs into the phone receiver.

Ash Devine, a local musician and clown who studied with the famous Patch Adams, has teamed up with Asheville Kilwins Chocolates franchise owner Marcy Gallagher to create an especially sweet program for area elementary school teachers. The two have designed a presentation that teaches kids about where chocolate comes from and how it is made. Although Kilwins has locations in multiple states, Gallagher’s program is unique to the Asheville area and not offered by any other franchise.

Gallagher says she was inspired to create the program after learning that many public educators have to use their own funds to provide rewards and incentives to their students. “As a local business owner, it is important to me to be involved in our community.” she says. “The Kilwins Cares for Kids program was born out of a desire to do something special for elementary school students and their teachers.“

Gallagher offers teachers free certificates of achievement in any quantity they want, and the teachers can give them as rewards to students who excel in one area or another. The certificates entitle recipients to a free kids ice cream cone at Kilwins, and Gallagher hopes they will give families an excuse to come downtown and make a day of it. Teachers can also request empty Kilwins ice cream tubs, which can be used for storage and other purposes in the classroom.

Brown has led Gallagher and Devine on a snaky path up and down stairs, through a Hogwarts-style maze of hallways and high-tech locked doors requiring magnetic pass cards, into a ring of almost 40 kindergartners who have combined classrooms for the presentation. Devine, wearing a shiny, red plastic clown nose and a colorful outfit like a Dr. Seuss character come to life, looks around, timidly lifts her hand to reveal a toy rubber hand perched atop her index finger and waves hello.

“Does anyone here know that chocolate comes from a fruit, that grows on a tree in the jungle?” asks Devine. Over the next 25 to 35 minutes, Gallagher and Devine take turns describing the process of growing, harvesting and drying cacao and making chocolate. Devine shows the children posters of cacao trees in lush green groves and explains that there are only a few places in the world along the equator that the trees can grow.

Then she asks the kids to list all the things they can think of that contain chocolate. “Candy!” “Cookies!’ “Ice cream!” The students have many ideas. Devine nods and continues, talking about how the trees are grown on small family farms and how the people and trees work together to grow the cacao fruit. The kids see enlarged photos of how the cacao farmers harvest and dry the fruit by hand until it’s ready to be ground into nibs, and Devine passes around a dried, brown cacao bean rattling with seeds. The fermentation process, she explains, is caused by “burps” from bacteria that eat the sugars in the fruit too fast.

As Gallagher talks about how the nibs are crushed then mixed with sugar and milk to make the flavor less bitter, she shows the children the bricks of chocolate that her downtown store melts and tempers in a special machine to make it soft enough for dipping everything from apples to Oreos. Near the end of the presentation, the pair hand out sample dots of white, milk and dark chocolate. As Devine shakes her tambourine, the kids sample the dots one at a time, in order from light to dark. She encourages the children to describe the differences they can taste and asks if they can detect the “bacteria burps.” Then she pulls out the ukelele and sings a song to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” about chocolate, encouraging all the kids to wave their hands, stomp their feet and sing along.

“My mentor, Patch Adams, says ‘Clowning is a trick to get love close,’ says Devine. “Perhaps, in this case, the same goes for chocolate: Chocolate is a trick to get education close. When I hear the kids singing about plants, small family farms and soil quality, I feel huge hope for our future.”

The Kilwins Cares for Kids program has done 10 elementary school presentations so far this school year. More opportunities are available for teachers to engage in the program before the end of this school year as well as to sign up for next year. For details on scheduling a presentation, contact Marcy Gallagher at 252-2639 or asheville@kilwins.com.

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