It’s way past dismissal bell on a Wednesday afternoon but about a dozen students happily work away in the food lab at Miles Macdonell Collegiate.
They chop veggies, measure spices and add a few cans of tomatoes to the big pots bubbling away on the stove-slowly the room begins to fill with the unforgettable aroma of pasta sauce made from scratch.
The students are gathered for the Rehabilitation Centre for Children’s Cooking Club. Students with special needs, peer volunteers without special needs, and Rehab Centre staff meet once a week to prepare meals-but that’s only a small part of the program.
“Here it’s all about inclusion and building independence,” says Carole Gingera Kowalchuk, communications and marketing coordinator with the Children’s Rehabilitation Foundation, which raises funds for the Rehab Centre. “Letting kids have the same opportunity as every other child – just because they have special needs or some limitations means nothing in this classroom. Everyone can do everything.”
The Cooking Club is part of the Rehab Centre’s L.I.F.E. (Leisure in Fun Environments) skills program for children with special needs. A Nourishing Potential grant from The Winnipeg Foundation helped ensure the Club has all the equipment it needs.
The Club includes meal planning, shopping, nutrition information, preparing and sharing meals, and it helps students with disabilities gain skills and develop relationships with peers and volunteers.
“These are a lot of the kids that are left on the sidelines and don’t have the interactions that every other kid has,” Gingera Kowalchuk says. “A real goal of the program is to have those interactions and opportunities to have socialization, to learn how to have friends, to be a friend, just those basic life skills.”
Cooking Club can be a great way to level the playing field between special needs students and their peers, explains Carol Kehler, a physiotherapist with the Rehabilitation Centre for Children who developed the program.
“[Often cooking is] something that the peers aren’t very good at either!” she says.
The Club started in 2009 at two schools. It’s been so popular that it now runs out of 8.
Each Club operates in a school for five to eight weeks and offers spaces for 12 to 16 special needs students. The Centre provides paid staff at a ratio of about 3:1, and peer volunteers bump the ratio to 1:1.
Travis Templeton, 16, is a peer volunteer. He has a family member with special needs and enjoys cooking, so volunteering seemed like a natural fit.
“It’s making the community a better place, teaching people how to do things,” he says. “Plus you meet new people – all of these people go to our school and some of them I’ve never seen before. It’s new relationships.”
The Club has specialized equipment to ensure every student can participate. Examples of specialized equipment include knives with elevated handles, cutting boards with attached knives allowing for one handed chopping, and cut resistant gloves.
The Nourishing Potential grant went a long way to helping Cooking Club buy the equipment each Club needs, Kehler says.
Participants make a full meal from scratch each week. Tonight’s menu is Caesar salad, garlic bread, spaghetti with veggie or meat sauce, and fruit kabobs with yogurt.
The only time processed foods are used is on the last day – when pizza is on the menu and the students use pepperoni. The first day they make mac and cheese from scratch. For the following weeks, students vote on what they want to make – which helps them learn about menu planning. It’s also often the special needs students that do the grocery shopping, which helps develop life skills.
The Clubs try to utilize participants’ knowledge whenever possible.
For example, Kehler says one of the special needs students was a perogie expert so she taught her peers how to make them from scratch.
“She was the perogie queen, she was so good at making perogies, so we made sauerkraut perogies, we made potato and cheese perogies.”
It’s important to give the special needs students opportunities to develop their leadership abilities.
“Often people think that if you have special needs then you need someone to help you with everything but it’s so not true. So one of the big things we’re working on is doing stuff together, and we all learn from each other,” Kehler says.
For more information about the Rehabilitation Centre for Children’s Cooking Clubs contact Carol Kehler at 204-235-8873 or visit www.rccinc.ca.
Nourishing Potential provides grants to organizations that give kids access to healthy food, nutrition knowledge and food preparation skills through after-school, drop-in and summer programs. These programs ensure kids get the nutritious food they need now and learn the skills they need for healthy futures.
The Nourishing Potential Fund, targeted to grow to a $5 million endowment, will ensure support for these types of programs is available forever. It is being built thanks to contributions from individuals, families and the Foundation’s lead partners: Assiniboine Credit Union, the Province of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Jets True North Foundation.
For more information about Nourishing Potential, how to apply for a grant or to make a gift to the Nourishing Potential Fund, go to www.wpgfdn.org or call 204-944-9474.
Tune in to CJNU 107.9 FM on Friday, April 12 at 3:30 p.m. to hear physiotherapist Carol Kehler talk about the importance of culinary skills for people with special needs and how Nourishing Potential has helped their Cooking Club.