Top Image: Student Karla Saenz works with Ansley Bump, Culinary Training Program Coordinator, to prepare dessert for event attendees on Dec. 4, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.
Top Image: Student Karla Saenz works with Ansley Bump, Culinary Training Program Coordinator, to prepare dessert for event attendees on Dec. 4, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson.

Recent university graduates will keep busy with job applications and celebrations this month, but for the five recent culinary graduates from the Providence Place Center for Higher Independence, the season will allow them to explore jobs and lives that they never before thought possible.

The program partners with the San Antonio Food Bank to provide six months of culinary training to individuals with disabilities, teaching them the food skills and life skills needed to succeed at work and outside the kitchen. The partnership began in 2006, and graduates on average, three to seven students in each class, with two graduating classes each year.

At the most recent class graduation on Friday, Dec.4, graduates and incoming students worked in the kitchens to prepare, cook and serve a special breakfast for program officials and students’ families. Each table was decorated with festive candy canes, and served plates of  pork tenderloin, arugula salad, a corn meal biscuit and hot chocolate s’mores for dessert. The overall presentation of culinary skills was impressive, one student group prepared and plated the food while the other group passed out plates to each event attendee.

“I think the program is awesome at getting the young adults out of their family homes and into their own homes,” said SAFB Chef Jill Jurkow. “Everybody that comes through our doors has had some setbacks in their lives, and we as chefs help build their knowledge of working in a kitchen, as well as building up their spirits.”

The students have varying degrees of  physical and mental disabilities, and not all of them will be able to find jobs or move out on their own, but they all leave the program with skills that will help them become more independent and confident, Jurkow said.

The kitchen is always chaotic, but Jurkow patiently directs the students to chop ingredients for the cranberry chutney, mix everything needed for the pomegranate dressing and reminds students to remove their gloves before the graduation ceremony. Her students are ready for new kitchens and jobs.

“They do need more special attention,” said Kimberly Granato, director of Culinary Arts at the San Antonio Food Bank. “The students here always go through a transformation of learning; they gain self worth, independence and the ability to go and get a job a lot of times,which before, some of them didn’t have the confidence to think they could do that.”

Students like Corley Walsh, age 20, were shy when they first entered the program. Walsh previously worked as a welder’s helper in West Texas but left when gas prices dropped last year, he wanted to find a job that encouraged creativity and wasn’t as physically demanding.

In the last six months, the program has helped Walsh build confidence in his personal and professional skills. He was always interested in cooking, but now he can make his favorite dish, fried pork chops.

“I’ve learned how to make better conversation with people; I’ve learned to tie my tie, polish my shoes and tie them better,” Walsh said. “I’ll be taking the job readiness course next semester, so I’m excited to start.”

The job readiness class will help new graduates create a resume, prepare for a successful job interview and even learn to manage their own income and save money.

Walsh has ambitious plans for his future; he plans to work at a restaurant or grocery store after he graduates, where he can talk to new people and learn more about cooking and food preparation. He will continue his education online, and eventually become some kind of teacher, though he’s not sure what he will teach.

“I’m just glad to be here, to learn more about the kitchen and restaurants,” said Walsh. 

Click here to learn more about the program requirements and available student services. Email Terri Gutierrez, Providence Place Admission Director at terri@provplace.org to apply for the program or call 1-800-842-5433 for an appointment to visit the center.

*Top Image: Student Karla Saenz works with Ansley Bump, SAFB Culinary Training Program Coordinator, to prepare dessert for event attendees on Dec. 4, 2015. Photo by Lea Thompson. 

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.