Sharing Strengths and Compassion in the Kitchen at Gardener Betts

The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre® (THK) facilitators Ida and Navye, both mothers, recently got to share THK’s six-week community cooking class with a very different audience. While most of the community cooking classes are for adults and tend to appeal to a female audience, the group at Gardner Betts Juvenile Center was comprised of teenage boys who live at the halfway house. Many of the boys living at the facility are in a time of transition in their lives--they will soon be taking care of themselves. We were approached by Gardener Betts to lead this class to help teach vital life skills to the boys before their departure.

Teachers at the facility are required to complete a lengthy and somewhat personal orientation process. The process was so involved that a third facilitator who had planned to also lead the class series was unable to complete the process (which took six+ weeks) in time. The orientation left Ida and Navye unsure of what they’d be walking into on the first night of class series because it is designed to reflect worst-case scenarios. They were told not to leave pens or staples sitting around, to leave purses and cell phones in their cars, and that they should never be alone with the residents. They started to wonder what they had signed up for.

Though they made sure to follow all of the safety procedures recommended in orientation, Ida and Navye were both consistently impressed with the participants in the class. “By the second class, the boys were really looking forward to the next week, and they were always asking how they could help…and they were really excited to receive the free cookbook at the end of the series.” In fact, I ran into Ida at the SFC office while she was picking up the cookbooks for the last class. I could tell how proud she was of the boys. She knew these boys had been through a lot in their young lives and they had made mistakes; this class was a way for them to share their strengths and compassion.

As part of the community cooking class series, participants receive the recipe ingredients so they can try it after class, and the boys got very creative with the recipes. They even created some combinations that Ida and Navye would never have thought of themselves, but that the boys were especially proud to share. For the final class, which includes a celebration and potluck, one resident made an elaborate fruit salad with marshmallows, granola, raisins, and more. The recipe got mixed reviews on taste, but the cook's enthusiasm for the dish made everyone want to try it.

This class series was a great fit for the group because several of the boys work at nearby fast food restaurants. Although they already have some basic kitchen and food safety skills, they don’t get many chances to experiment in the kitchen, or to explore healthier eating. The boys were especially amazed with the visual demonstrations in class, such as the activities that show how much fat or sodium is in certain foods, and how much sugar is in soda. One participant wrote on the class survey that he hopes to give up soda now. The Juice Sparkler (a soda alternative that mixes 100% juice with sparkling water) was an especially big hit, and several participants also enjoyed trying tofu for the first time. The third class in the series includes information on gardening and was also a great fit for this group, with big plans for an on-site garden and composting system!

Having the opportunity to bring the six week class series to Gardner Betts is a great reminder of how powerful this program is. No matter the situation or the audience, I am always amazed at what joy, fellowship and knowledge are cultivated over the six week series, both among participants and facilitators. We look forward to working with Gardner Betts again in the spring to help additional boys explore the kitchen and their health for a better future.