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Stirring interest in substance-free lives

May 1, 2009
by David Raths
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A program teaches teens responsibility alongside culinary skills

One of the many challenges drug and alcohol treatment centers face in working with adolescents is helping them define their interests, set goals, and follow through on commitments. Thunder Road, a treatment program for teens in Northern California, has found that a culinary arts program helps youths learn these skills while preparing for employment in the food industry.

“For many of these students, their interest in thinking about a vocation is pretty low,” says Armando Corpus, culinary arts director of Oakland-based Thunder Road, part of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. “They are often quite confused about the future. Their plans are not formed or are unrealistic.”

The culinary program, he adds, helps build their confidence: “A lot of them have skills that haven’t been recognized before. They might be hard workers or have a really good temperament. It’s about them having faith in their own abilities.”

Officially launched four years ago, the culinary program actually developed more informally during a longer period, as clients in Thunder Road’s residential programs gradually became more involved in their own meal preparation.

“The cooks took students under their wing informally as they showed interest in learning about cooking,” Corpus explains.

Fund-raising during the past several years has brought Thunder Road close to $1 million, allowing the culinary program to expand into a new professional kitchen in March to teach groups of 20 students who can receive school credit for their participation. They attend hands-on cooking labs, visit local restaurants, and help cater meals for meetings at Alta Bates.

Some of the program’s graduates find work in Bay Area restaurants. “One student I taught how to make brownies here is now an assistant pastry chef at a fancy San Francisco restaurant,” Corpus notes.

But beyond learning bakery techniques, the students are developing skills to deal with adversity. “They have to learn not to get discouraged,” Corpus says. “If something goes wrong in the cooking process, it’s my responsibility to offer encouragement that we’re going to stick together and still get it done.”

David Raths is a freelance writer.