One day at work earlier this year, REACH, Inc. Community Inclusion Coordinator Greg Frank and a REACH case worker had a realization.
“We said, ‘Our guys need to learn how to cook,” Frank recalled.
The two approached Annie Humphrys at Chez Alaska cooking school with an idea: REACH and the school could collaborate to help the organization’s special needs clients learn to cook meals for themselves, working toward REACH’s goal of independence for people experiencing disabilities.
Humphrys and her business partner Jerry Spaulding, who have owned the cooking school for two years, thought it was a great idea and the weekly Wednesday classes began in March.
The lessons started out slowly. The teachers’ seven students didn’t have a lot of experience in the kitchen, so they began with the basics — how to measure ingredients, how to hold a knife, how to cook eggs and rice.
The students were shy and nervous at first, Humphrys said. Spaulding said they were lucky to get students to show up a half hour late, if at all.
But a huge shift took place in the class dynamics after a few months. Now, the classmates talk, joke and work together.
“At 9:30 they’re beating this door down to get started,” Spaulding said.
“About four months in, they started changing,” Humphrys agreed. “They all blossomed by about July. They’re stepping out of their safety zone.”
Humphrys said she has gotten amazing feedback from her students’ parents. Parents say their children’s confidence is higher and they’re more prone to try new things, she said.
“They’ve seen so much change in their kids,” Humphrys said.
On Wednesday morning, the class was tasked with making stuffed meatloaf, or “Jerry’s Famous Bachelor Meatloaf,” as Humphrys told the class. One student rolled out the ground meat mixture, while another placed green beans on the flattened patty.
“You’re the vegetable specialist,” Humphrys told the student.
The class took turns adding more and more stuffing to the meatloaf until it was time to roll it up.
“That’s cool,” said one student, watching a classmate help Humphrys roll. “This is like a big old burrito.”
“Isn’t that neat? You’re going to make that at home, aren’t you?” Humphrys replied.
Once the completed meatloaf was in one of two hot ovens, Humphrys told the class it was time to pick out the stuffings for the second one.
“Kimchi,” suggested student Zack Vaara. The class laughed.
“We can’t go through a class without Zack saying ‘kimchi,’” Humphrys said, chuckling. The class decided to add some dijon mustard to the second meatloaf.
“Spread some sunshine — that’s what mustard is,” Humphrys instructed. “Good job, Monte,” she said to a student.
Monte George said he enjoys learning how to cook because it’s applicable outside of the classroom — he can use his new skills at home. He said today’s lesson was a challenge, but he’s glad he was here for it.
“It was difficult to learn,” George said. “We had made meatloaf before, but not like this.”
Jimmy Merculief, another cooking student, said he’s learned a lot since he started taking the class. His favorite thing to make is gravy to go with mashed potatoes.
Frank said the class also offers a great social component for REACH clients. It brings people together who wouldn’t be mingling otherwise, he said.
“A lot of these guys knew of each other, but didn’t know each other,” he said. “They’re learning to interact, they’re learning teamwork.”
Things have been going so well that REACH recently started a second class at Chez Alaska, and Hope Community Resources, Inc., another organization that advocates for people experiencing disabilities, has come aboard, too, Frank said.
“It’s a ripple effect; now we’re seeing the impact that’s happening,” he said. “We’re going to keep rolling with it until we can’t.”
Humphrys and Spaulding said they’re thrilled the program is growing.
“This is the best thing we’ve ever done,” Spaulding said.
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.