By Mike Marsee
Food has the power to bring people together, and it has done wonders to bond two groups of students at Boyd County High School.
Students in Becky Lynch’s culinary arts class and in Tina Ward’s special education class are enjoying working closely with each other in a program designed to help students in both groups build critical skills.
The Chef Buddies program that brings the two classes together teaches students with moderate to severe disabilities how to operate independently in the kitchen and teaches the culinary arts students how to work with others.
“Chef Buddies has been a wonderful opportunity for all involved to learn from and with one another,” Ward said.
The groups meet together about every two weeks to prepare a dish together. They work in pairs to make a dish according to instructions that Lynch’s students have prepared in advance.
“You see the special needs kids get so excited when come in here, and they’ve made a friend,” Lynch said. “Food is how a lot of people socialize, and they look forward to coming in and seeing their buddy each week. They’re with the same one every week, because they’ve already bonded.”
The two classes began meeting together in January. They prepared pizza bread under Lynch’s direction during their first session together, and after that her students essentially took over the kitchen.
“My students are the instructors when they come in here,” she said. “They all do a visual recipe, with a picture and one line of instruction on one page. All I actually have to do with the seniors is facilitate, make sure they have what they need and make sure they have copies of the recipe.”
And the special needs students have input into what those recipes will be.
“When they leave, they will tell my students what they would like to see the next time, and we tailor a lesson around that,” Lynch said.
A recent lesson called for Ward’s students to make cake in a mug, and Lynch’s students had to do the prep work to be ready to show their partners how it’s made.
“My students have to research that. They found a recipe for cake in a mug, and they had to teach the students how to microwave. It teaches them how to problem-solve,” Lynch said.
Other dishes the students have made have included slushies, spaghetti noodles and hot dogs cut to look like an octopus.
Ward said the lessons her students are learning can serve them long after they leave school.
“Chef Buddies has allowed us to increase our student involvement and awareness,” she said. “It is letting us take those basic life skills that we teach in the classroom and apply them in a real-life setting. These are the skills that our students will need later on in everyday life to become as independent as they possibly can.”
Lynch said her students are learning valuable skills as well.
“Being in the position I am in culinary arts, my job is to teach my kids employability skills or what’s going to make them better,” she said. “We’re creating an environment of respect, of rapport, and the other students get the life skills that they need.
“The impact is so much more than what I thought it would be for my kids.”
Lynch is in her first year at Boyd County High, but as a student she was a member of a club that held Christmas parties for the students of another special education teacher, Geoff Stewart.
When she came to Boyd County High, she proposed having her students work with Stewart and Ward’s classes, which had no area for learning independent living skills beyond a sink.
“I said, ‘We’re going to do something with your kids,’” Lynch said. “I have seniors in my Culinary Arts II class, and this can teach them employability skills and how to work with a diverse population of employees.”
Ward jumped at the idea.
“As a teacher of students with complex needs, I am always looking for ways of getting my students involved, letting them feel accepted or a part of something and raising awareness,” she said.
Lynch’s students and others from a peer tutor group expanded the activity last month when they volunteered at a cooking carnival for about 40 special needs children ages 6 and up, working in groups to help them prepare personal-sized pizzas and ice cream sundaes for their lunch.
She said activities such as that and what is happening in her class have inspired students who aren’t considering a culinary field but are considering a career of working with special needs children.
“We’ve got a football player who wants to go into special needs, and one girl requested him and his teacher allowed him to come do it from another class,” Lynch said.
“And I had one girl after the first time we did it who came up to me after class – she had never been in one of the culinary classes, but her schedule worked right – and she came up and gave me the biggest hug. I think this was probably one of the best classes that ever happened to her. She was real emotional about it, her mom said.”
Lynch said juniors who are taking one of her other classes already know about this class and are looking forward to being part of it next year, and some of them volunteered at the cooking carnival.
She said she and Ward plan to apply for a grant that will help them obtain supplies for the program, and she would also like to be able to offer an end-of-year reward, such as a dinner for the two groups of students at a local restaurant.
“Once we get through this year, we just want to build on it each year,” Lynch said.
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