Food service can be good fit for people with disabilities

6:16 PM, Dec 3, 2012   |    comments
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Many people with disabilities face obstacles to employment. A local non-profit breaks down those barriers.

A large room at Cokesbury Center in West Knoxville replicates a real food service kitchen.

"We try to make it as real as possible because when it's real to them when they do get into a job placement they're very comfortable in that environment," Chris Harper said.

Chris Harper wrote his master's thesis on the idea then made it a reality. Youth Transitions Culinary Program trains people with disabilities for jobs in the food service industry.

"I really like to make something very good," Holly Newman said.

Holly Newman is a current student who has worked as a baker at Carson-Newman College.

She is refining and expanding her skills and even learning to cut up a whole chicken.

"Danielle and I really helping to cut some chicken," she said, referring to Danielle Johnson who helps teach knife skills.

She's a graduate of the program who now works at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.

Chris Harper said, "We call her the machine. Danielle is the machine. She can do anything. She has done everything."

Danielle said, "I look on the menus for the food that needs to be served to the people and I clean up. It's my responsibility to clean up."

That attitude is essential. Chris Harper knows restaurants need employees with a strong work ethic and a sense of urgency.

"Every kid is not going to be a chef. Every kid is not going to be a grill cook. But there are a lot of opportunities in the industry," he said.

Students start with an assessment. They make scrambled eggs and a two egg omelet.

"We learn if that student is patient. We learn if that student just wants to cook really fast. We learn if they have sensory issues. We learn a lot with just two scrambled eggs and a two egg omelet. Then we may have them sweep the floor to see if they have the patience to do mundane work," Harper said.

Advanced students prepare meals for six local churches. That revenue supports the culinary program at no charge to students.

"We're the only program in the southeast that focuses on food services and special needs. We're the only program in the country," Harper said.

Youth Transitions Culinary Program has a 78% placement rate and a 100% satisfaction rate from Holly and Danielle.

"I am making a cake, a pie, a cupcake, a roll. Everything. And that is so good," Holly said.

Danielle said, "I want to be a chef. I want to have students. I want people to learn knife skills. I want to teach people what to do, how to cook."

She is well on her way thanks to an innovative program right here in Knoxville.

Teams of students from the class go to culinary competitions across the country and they have won many awards.

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