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A recipe for helping kids

It’s 4:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and in a kitchen in Frog Level, a chocolate almond layered torte is beginning to take shape. It’s a paragon of decadent, gourmet virtue, and it’s being lovingly crafted, layer on layer, for entry in this year’s Taste of Chocolate competition.

But it’s not being forged at the hands of a professional chef or restaurant culinary team. It’s a group of teenagers in black aprons, taking over the old Armory kitchen after school, perfecting their entry before getting a jump on some homework.

These are the most recent participants in Kids at Work, a program put on by the Haywood Jackson Volunteer Center that gets at-risk kids out of possible mischief and into the kitchen, learning skills that they can take into their lives and, hopefully, into the workplace.

It’s headed up by Corey Costanzo, a counselor with Aspire Youth and Family, a Haywood County organization dedicated to helping young people and their families succeed.

Costanzo saw a niche in the educational system that needed filling — the region was pretty low on vocational training for young people that could offer them marketable job skills, right out of school.

When he heard that Haywood County’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council was calling for ideas to help at-risk and court-involved kids get a kick start in society and the workplace, he jumped on the opportunity.

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“If we teach them how to cook and give them counseling and social skills, we’re going to see a marked improvement,” says Costanzo, and the kids who are in the program seem to agree.

Averrie Gast says she is a good example of this. She’s a friendly, talkative blonde who is in the thick of the culinary fray in the kitchen, washing dishes, mixing chocolate, asking questions of professional chef Ambra Lowenstein, the group’s teacher.

She was referred to the program by her therapist, who thought it would help her confront her paralyzing fear of hot water.

“When I was 18 months old, I was burned by boiling water, and my whole life I’ve had a fear of boiling water,” she explains.

Since facing her fear with her friends in the kitchen, though, she’s broken its spell and says she’s now, a few months later, able to cook in her kitchen alone.

Plus, she says, the program has not only helped her conquer her fears but also given her a community that she loves and skills she can take into the workplace.

“It’s kind-of like our own little family,” says Gast of the tight-knit group of six.

They’re the third round of students to go through the program, and they learn everything from whipping up a roulade to washing the dish it’s served in. That way, says Costanzo, kids like Averrie graduate with the knowledge and experience to move into entry-level positions at any number of restaurants.

They don’t just stick with normal American fare, either, says Costanzo, which helps expose them to a raft of cuisines that will help them in the workplace, and will broaden their own culinary horizons and hopefully inject some more interesting, healthy options into their daily diets.

Kaleb Sise says this is one of his favorite elements of the program. He’s tall and tattooed, with his short, red hair styled up into a messy faux-hawk and gauges in his ears. Unlike some of his classmates, he’s dreamt of a chef’s life since childhood, and he appreciates the diversity that the program’s curriculum offers.

“My favorite food is Asian cuisine, and we’ve done that before,” says Sise, noting that he’s been experimenting in the kitchen since childhood. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a chef, I have since I was little, so I already knew some things.”

But whether their life’s aspiration is to be a chef or consider successfully producing unburned toast a culinary triumph, Costanzo has seen the benefits of the program change the lives of many students. So far, he’s had 84 participate, and says he’s seen some pretty dramatic improvements in some, both behaviorally and socially.

“One of my kids, he’s been in juvenile detention, he’s been kicked out of two schools, and now he calls me on weekends with his mother in the grocery store because he’s staying home on Friday night, cooking for his family,” says Costanzo. “To me, that’s the greatest success.”

That kind of transformation, he says, comes from not only teaching kids new and valuable skills, but putting them into a community of other kids and adult mentors who help them with homework, social and family issues and provide them a safe, fun and helpful environment on a regular basis. After being exposed to that, he says, a lot of his students don’t want to leave the program.

Among the six here today, a few were already expressing that very sentiment.

Although the program is producing pretty great benefits for the kids personally, its aim is really to offer them longer-term success professionally by getting them into the workplace.

The economy, though, is still brutal, especially for high school students and recent graduates with a dearth of on-the-ground experience.

That’s part of why they’re teaming up with The Open Door in Frog Level — where the kids already cook a few times a month — for this month’s The Whole Bloomin’ Thing festival.

The students will cook brunch to raise funds for the charity, and Costanzo hopes it will afford them some exposure to area restaurant owners who see their skills and will offer them a chance to improve them with real-world employment.

But even if not all of his graduates go on to culinary careers, Costanzo says he considers the shifts in their lives and their thinking a tremendous success in its own right.

“We really want them to be a part,” says Costanzo. “We want to give kids an opportunity to experience a different kind of family than what they’re used to.”

And in this group, where more than one said they came into the program with few friends or community and will be sad when they graduate from Kids At Work, that benchmark of success has probably already been reached.

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