Air fried chicken strips
Spanish rice and beans
Sparkling fruit punch
Vanilla & chocolate cupcakes
Fresh strawberries with homemade whipped cream
Chocolate dipped pretzel rods (thanks to Gryphon!)
It’s hard to believe that the last Cultivating Change reflection I wrote was penned in December. So much has happened in the intervening months, the most difficult being that Jan’s husband was diagnosed with cancer in January, and she has been caring for him around the clock ever since. We managed to squeeze in a couple classes in March because Jan missed cooking with the youth so much, but it wasn’t possible for us to commit to weekly classes. I fumbled to find ways to help her, and realized in the process how close Jan and I have become through teaching together. I feel like our efforts to create community at CCYC through cooking created a strong bond between us as well.
April saw us return to a more regular schedule, and it has been amazing to be cooking with both the boys and girls again. This week we cooked with the girls, and the menu was decided by A., who celebrated her birthday the day prior. As we were setting up to cook with the girls, the boys were leaving the multipurpose room, and D. and E. ran up to tell us that it was their birthday too. Luckily Jan had baked plenty of cupcakes, so we assured them that we would cook up some birthday meals for them as well.
Jan and I tend to overdo it when it comes to the menu, and usually we push cooking to the limits in an effort to make lots of delicious and healthy dishes for the youth. With so much going on right now, Jan decided that we should keep it simple—focus on a couple of key dishes, and have prepared any extras in advance.
This class, we only needed to make the chicken and rice and beans with the youth. Jan made the cupcakes and pretzel rods in advance with her grandson, and the drink and fruit would just need simple prep. The girls would decorate the cupcakes with frosting, sprinkles and fruit.
The foundation of the menu, per usual, was spice, and we made the adobo and sazon seasoning mixes used in both recipes at the start of class. We divided into two groups with one group preparing the spiced flour and breadcrumb mixture for the chicken, while the other group sautéed the onions, peppers and seasoning for the rice and beans. As soon as the vegetables for the rice and beans started to cook, the aroma drew people over. First, my assistants wandered off after they placed the first batch of chicken in the oven, drawn by the smell of the vegetables. Then the staff lifted the lid of the skillet to peek inside. Next staff who weren’t even in the multipurpose room came by to find out what we were preparing. There was growing interest in our menu and it was pulling everyone together to talk about food.
As the chicken baked and the rice and beans simmered, we worked together to decorate the cupcakes and mix our sparkling birthday punch. A. was happy to be the star of the show for her birthday, and we joked and laughed easily as we prepared dessert. There was plenty of food for the two boys’ pods as well as staff, so without complaint the girls decorated cupcakes for them and we divvied up the chicken and rice and beans so that everyone could sample the meal. I was grateful for their generosity. More than once when cooking with the boys, I have forgotten to set aside extra food for the other pods, and before I know it, the boys have scarfed down everything we prepared, leaving the other pods with nothing. Jan and I are now trying to teach in a way that we plate up food for the other pods first, and emphasize the abundance that comes through sharing with others. Food is such a powerful vehicle for creating community and modeling a culture of generosity and service. We witnessed it today in the way the girls delighted in preparing food for others and sitting down together with staff to share their creations and take pride in their efforts.
COOKING WITH CCYC REFLECTIONS - 12/30
Hoppin’ John and rice
Collard greens with smoked turkey legs
Macaroni and cheese
Cornbread with honey butter
Grapes and clementines
Apple cider donut holes
Mystery ingredient fudge
Pomegranate tulsi peach spritzer
In order to ring in the new year properly, we planned a Cultivating Change menu that featured foods traditionally eaten to bring prosperity and health in the coming year. Before we started cooking, we asked everyone to name a food that they thought they wouldn’t like but then did upon tasting. We offered this as a reminder to the boys that there have been plenty of times (especially in this class) when they were pleasantly surprised by the taste of a new or unusual food. This lesson would become particularly relevant when they discovered the mystery ingredient in the fudge that Jan brought for dessert.
There were only four boys cooking with us this class, and like we had been doing all month as a practice of service and generosity, we would be preparing enough food to share with the other pods who weren’t able to cook with us. This meant that we needed to get cracking. The good news was that Jamilah was teaching with us, so we were sure to get everything done in time.
Jamilah and I paired up with two of the boys to make the Hoppin’ John, rice, and collard greens. Jan would make the drinks and cornbread with the other two boys. Jan had already made the mac and cheese, fudge, and donut holes before class. Jamilah and I were working with U. and P. They are very different young men. U. is very confident and often says that he is a master chef. He does have great cooking skills, which makes me think that he must have spent a lot of time in the kitchen growing up. P. is the exact opposite. He is very tentative and lacks confidence. He gets easily frustrated with himself and often wants to give up. But he has a wonderful sense of curiosity and a gentle nature, so if you can get him to forget his fears, he is easily absorbed in the recipes and is eager to learn about how to make everything. The other good thing is that he is always very excited to eat anything he helped create. I’ve seen his enthusiasm for the food motivate the other boys to try foods that they were hesitant about.
We worked as a team to chop the vegetables for the two dishes. We would be cooking each of them in pressure cookers to make sure they got done in time. P. was really curious about the Ninja Pot pressure cooker. Together we sautéed the vegetables and added smoked turkey legs, black-eyed peas, and broth to the pot. We read and re-read the instruction manual to make sure that we had set it up properly. Then we had to wait for it to come to pressure. P. was really worried that it wasn’t working, and he kept a close eye on it the whole time. He was so concerned that he convinced me to check to make sure it was working. It was. Eventually the pressure gauge popped up and it started counting down the time until it was ready. P. watched and paced. He had lots of questions about the functionality of the cooker. When it came time to open it up, I showed him how to turn the valve to release the steam. He looked at it like it was magic.
We assembled all of the food on the table, and, although I think this every week, it looked and smelled especially delicious. After we made up the plates for the other pods and the boys had sampled all of the food, we dished out their dessert of grapes, clementines, apple cider donut holes, and fudge. Jan was giddy with excitement about the fudge. She told the boys that whoever guessed the mystery ingredient would get to have a big slab of it to themselves. They nibbled on it while guessing lots of different vegetables and spices. No one was even close, and the adults started shouting out guesses too. Everyone said it was really good, but they couldn’t quite tell what was different about it. Jan gave them a hint that it was an ingredient in something else we were eating. S. looked at the table perplexed and questioned, “Mac and cheese?” At this point Jan was doubled over with laughter. S. was nearly there, but ultimately didn’t guess that the mystery ingredient was Velveeta! Hopefully this meal was a reminder to the boys to be open to new foods and experiences in the year ahead, and to be brave, curious, and generous. They might be pleasantly surprised by result.
COOKING WITH CCYC REFLECTIONS - 12/23
Holiday cookie extravaganza
Hot chocolate with marshmallows
For most Cultivating Change classes, we set ourselves an ambitious menu, and this one was no exception. We would be attempting to make not five, not six, but eight different holiday treats during class time. In addition, we would also serve chocolate chip and spritz cookies that Jan and I made at home to share with the group.
We had a lot to accomplish and no time to waste. The boys got right to work measuring, mixing, and melting the ingredients for the desserts. We would be making a classic gingerbread cookie; two Oreo-based desserts; chocolate dipped, candy cane-coated pretzels; a chocolate oat and cranberry no-bake cookie; chocolate krinkles; coconut chocolate kisses; and hot chocolate.
The whole process was a bit of a blur to me because there was so much going on. There was flour on every possible surface and I had the boys running laps looking for the right ingredients and measuring spoons for each recipe. I knew making the gingerbread people would take some time, so we got to that right away. First, I demonstrated how to flour the work surface and roll out the dough to the right thickness before cutting out the shapes. Then each of the boys had a chance to try it out for themselves. At one point in the process, a new boy, who had just arrived to CCYC minutes earlier, sat down at the table and jumped right in to making cookies with us. Their first attempts were failures with dough sticking to the rolling pin, ripping, or being rolled out unevenly. But by their third attempt, they had it down, which meant that I was free to check on the status of the other cookies we were making.
We were baking everything in the air fryer, which meant that there was only one tray of cookies going in at a time, and there was only room for a handful of cookies on the tray. Needless to say, it made for a bit of a juggle, and there were a few casualties as a result, including the tips of my fingers, which I burned repeatedly in my haste to switch out the trays. The coconut chocolate kisses faired the worst, with the first batch coming out too dark, and the second coming out not dark enough. But the good news was that they got drizzled with chocolate, which helped to cover up my multiple missteps.
The best news was that everyone else was on top of their cookie game, so the other treats that I was not responsible for baking turned out beautifully. Yet again, I was amazed by the diversity and quantity of food we are able to make using a random mix of kitchen implements schlepped into the multipurpose room. The assortment of holiday cookies we made looked and tasted fantastic. The boys were excited to forget for a moment that they were spending their Christmases at CCYC. Before they could sit down to eat, they each made up a goodie bag for the other other pods who weren’t able to cook with us.
As the boys headed back to their pod and the flour dust settled, two thoughts crossed my mind: somehow we pulled it off, and I hope Santa brings us a bigger oven for Christmas.
COOKING WITH CCYC REFLECTIONS - 12/18
Waffle House Waffles vs. Caitlin’s Waffles
Homemade whipped cream
Assorted fresh fruit
Recipe competitions have really become a staple of Cultivating Change. Not only do they create a little friendly rivalry among the youth, but they help us to narrow down the recipes that should be adapted for the Cultivating Change cookbook. AHHAH is creating the cookbook to help offset the restitution costs that youth pay when they return to their communities. This week we decided to focus on waffles. We debated about doing a waffles vs. pancakes cook-off, but we know that there are diehard fans in both camps, so we wouldn’t want to exclude either from the cookbook.
Jan provided the teams with the choice of preparing either a Waffle House style waffle, or her daughter Caitlin’s recipe. There were vocal Waffle House supporters in the group, and they joined me to make that recipe and the persimmon syrup, while Jan’s group made Caitlin’s recipe, the whipped cream, and the milkshakes.
Our recipe was very complicated. There were almost twice as many ingredients in it as compared to Caitlin’s. It called for both butter and vegetable shortening as well as three types of milk (whole milk, half and half, and buttermilk). Once we got through all of the measuring and mixing, we got to the fun part of making the waffles. We had a double Belgian waffle maker, and the boys were very excited to use it to make the waffles. C. was particularly adept, which didn’t surprise me, since he has shown a knack for cooking in every class. We left him in charge of making the waffles while the rest of us made the persimmon syrup. We made the syrup from fresh persimmons from my yard. Most of the boys had never seen a persimmon before and were hesitant to try it. Once we started cooking the persimmon with cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract and the aroma started to fill the air, the boys were more eager to try it. We let it cook down and then strained out the remaining pulp. I had my helpers sample it. They loved it and were amazed by how good it was.
Both teams plated up the waffles and brought the syrups, fresh fruit, and whipped cream to the table. Staff were encouraged to participate in the voting, and we definitely didn’t need to ask them twice. I was impressed by how many boys tried the persimmon syrup, no doubt spurred on by the guys on my team raving about how good it was. After everyone had sampled both waffles, we voted by a show of hands and the tally came out exactly even. Everyone voted for the waffle that they made, and the staff were evenly split.
To me, it was a great result because it showed that if you get a young person involved in cooking, they will (most likely) enjoy the result. The boys clearly favored the waffles that they helped make. Even the persimmon syrup, which I thought was a little heavy on the vanilla extract, was a big hit, because they made it themselves. Now as far as which recipe should make the cookbook? I think we should take the best of both recipes and combine them to make a true CCYC original. That way everyone is a winner.
COOKING WITH CCYC REFLECTIONS - 12/11
Ramen bowl with two types of broth, hard boiled egg, and assorted vegetables
Homemade chili oil
Sticky rice with mixed fruit
Passion tea with lemonade
At the start of class, we often ask everyone what their favorite food is. It might be a specific category, (favorite breakfast food, favorite comfort food…), or just generally what is their favorite food at that moment. Last class, S. said that his favorite food was ramen. That got Jan and I thinking that we should make a homemade and healthy alternative to packaged ramen, so that the kids could taste that it was possible to make a savory and flavorful ramen without all of the sodium and preservatives. I suggested pairing it with mango sticky rice for dessert, and Jan found a quick and easy rice cooker version that looked like it would work for us. Not only would the boys be making their own ramen, but they’d need to make enough for the other two pods who weren’t able to cook with us, so we had a lot to do in not much time.
I was working with C., P., and U., who I had worked with the week before. We were in charge of making the chili oil, vegetable broth, and prepping all of the vegetables. I was feeling slightly panicked because it seemed like it might be too much for us to do. C. and U. got started prepping the vegetables, and I was immediately impressed with their attention to detail. Particularly U., who was slicing the scallions to a restaurant quality level. They were perfectly uniform, small, and neat. Plus, he was fast. I realized that I was underestimating my crew. We had everything under control. While they worked on the vegetables, P. and I prepared the vegetable broth. It would be packed with flavor from plenty of garlic and ginger with a splash of sesame oil and soy sauce added to the vegetable bouillon. We threw in a handful of beautifully prepped scallions for good measure. While that simmered, we got to work searing the vegetables in a wok. I showed the boys how to properly use a wok, at very high heat, with lots of stirring, and for just a short amount of time. C. was a natural. P. was nervous that he was going to burn the green beans and was almost too nervous to try, but I assured him that he could do it. Slowly, he began to relax and enjoy the fun of cooking with a wok. (Later, when we were eating, several boys said that the green beans were their favorite part of the meal.)
After we put the vegetables and chili oil on the table, we went over to lend a hand to Jan’s crew. They were wrestling a mountain of sticky ramen noodles. We helped to wrangle them into a bowl. They had finished up the chicken broth. Apparently, S. (who had inspired us to make this meal in the first place) was disappointed that we wouldn’t be using the flavor packets that came with the noodles. We told him that the whole point of the meal was to show that we could make something delicious and healthy from scratch. He was skeptical and insisted that the chicken broth be left plain, so there was only bouillon in that broth. Jan dished out the noodles and I asked which broth each boy wanted. At first, because they like meat so much, boys were only asking for the chicken broth. Since I knew that the vegetable broth was going to be more flavorful, I suggested to a couple boys that I add a splash of it their chicken broth. They relented. When it was P.’s turn, he requested the vegetable broth. Since he made it with me, he knew everything that was in it, and was eager to sample his hard work.
The boys devoured the ramen, and L. said that it was the best he had ever tasted as he scooped himself seconds from the pot. Several boys said that the sautéed vegetables were their favorite part of the dish. Only S. didn’t like our take on ramen and asked if he could add one of the seasoning packets to his bowl. It was a good reminder for us that sometimes favorite foods are favorites not because they are the most flavorful or interesting, but because they bring us back to a certain time or place and provide comfort. Perhaps S. was nostalgic for packaged ramen, and what we made didn’t quite transport him out of CCYC to better times. But for the other boys, they realized that not only could they improve upon packaged food with fresh ingredients, they could also cook for a crowd. We were able to prepare an inexpensive and nutritious meal (with dessert!) for approximately 20 people in a little over an hour.
Velveeta mac & cheese
Strawberry banana smoothies
As soon as I heard the phone ring early Saturday morning and saw that it was Jan, I knew that there was a problem. She was barely able to squeak out that she had lost her voice and wasn’t going to be able to teach Cultivating Change. She was devastated because she and the girls had come up with the menu in their writing workshop the day before. I assured her that I would manage on my own, and I headed over to her house to pick up the supplies.
When I arrived to CCYC, I found out that there would be eight boys in class, which was the most that had participated in a while. I feel like the numbers always increase as the weather turns cold. It was going to be interesting to see how I managed that many boys on my own, but most of them had been attending class for at least two or three sessions, so they knew what to do.
Once I explained the menu, the boys divided into teams: one group was going to make the smoothies, another would shred the turkey and make the taco seasoning, and the last group would prepare the guac and all of the taco toppings. Jan had made Velveeta mac & cheese the day before to add to our list of contenders for the cookbook, so that was already prepared and just needed to be reheated.
I jumped back and forth between groups to check in on them and give them help as needed, but most of them were doing a stellar job without much assistance. Staff were there to lend a hand, which definitely kept things running smoothly. Within no time, the smoothies were ready and being poured. I started putting out the toppings for the tacos while W. and a new boy, L., sautéed the turkey meat with the taco seasoning. I popped over to check on the guacamole making, and J. and U. seemed to have everything under control. I was so impressed with how well the boys worked together without any direct leadership. They really have developed solid skills in the time they have been part of Cultivating Change. Somehow we managed to get the food on the tables and the boys eating ahead of schedule—something that never happens when Jan and I are both there. We were so early in fact, that I offered to air fry taquitos with the leftover turkey meat while they ate. They had time for seconds and to sample the mac & cheese. It definitely was not as well-received as S.’s mom’s or Jamilah’s recipe, both of which were made with shredded cheese. I was happy that the family recipes were the favorites.
Without even asking, the boys started to clean the dishes and sanitize the tables. When they needed to step up and put in the extra effort, the boys really came through and displayed a level of maturity that I hadn’t seen before.
cooking with ccyc reflections - 11/27
Thanksgiving leftover makeover
Turkey and fixings quesadillas
Potato pancakes with scallions and cheddar cheese
Sweet potato pancakes with garlic and mozzarella cheese
Cultivating Change got off to an uncertain start when Jan called me as I was driving to CCYC to let me know that we wouldn't have class because there wasn’t enough staff coverage. Like everywhere else, CCYC was experiencing pandemic-related staff shortages. We were really disappointed, especially because we had so many leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal that we didn’t want to go to waste. I suggested that maybe Jan and I could cook the food ourselves to be delivered to the youth, so that they could at least sample the recipes. Jan told me to come to CCYC regardless while she called the supervisor to see if that was an option. By the time I pulled in to the parking lot, Jan said that staff had arranged it so that we most likely could cook with the boys and deliver food to the girls.
When learning to cook, it’s just as important to know how to breathe new life into leftovers as it is to be able to cook from scratch. Jan suggested that we use the Thanksgiving meal leftovers as a base for new dishes. One of my very favorite things to make from leftover mashed potatoes is potato pancakes. You can add any seasoning or ingredients that you have on hand, and they are super quick, easy, and tasty. Since there were plenty of sweet potatoes as well, we figured we would make both types to see which was the crowd favorite. All of the other leftovers were put out with tortillas and shredded cheese, and everyone was free to assemble their own kitchen sink quesadilla. I loved seeing how many vegetables ended up in the quesadillas along with the turkey, stuffing, and cheese. The green beans were an especially big hit.
Early on in the potato pancake making, W. and T. started to argue and things got heated pretty quickly. Jan de-escalated the situation by having the boys breathe and talk through their perspective. The technique was so effective that the boys calmed down before my group even knew what was going on. I only learned that anything happened when Jan told me about it after class. Luckily, my group of boys was completely oblivious to the whole incident.
As we were finishing up cooking with the boys, one of the staff came in to say that the girls were able to come in to cook with us as well, so everyone was going to have the chance to participate in this week’s class. Once again, I was impressed by how willing the staff was to go above and beyond to accommodate Cultivating Change.
After the boys ate and cleaned up, two of the girls in detention joined Jan and I in the multipurpose room. As soon as we got started, one of the girls, H., started acting out. She said that she wasn’t going to eat anything that we made, and that she hadn’t eaten the Thanksgiving meal that we had prepared for her earlier in the week either. Anything we suggested, she shot down. She didn’t want to help make the food. When I showed her the ingredients in the potato pancakes, she said she wouldn’t eat them because she doesn’t like egg. When I suggested that she try it, she flatly refused. It went on this way for most of the class, until everything was assembled, and everyone else started sampling the food and saying how tasty it was. Someone suggested that she taste a bit of the sweet potato pancake, which she begrudgingly did, and then said that it was actually really good. She said that it was the first time she had ever eaten sweet potato, and she couldn’t even tell there was any egg in it. One of the staff members laughed about what a hard time H. gave us about the food only to like it in the end. When it came time to offer their feedback, H. had so many suggestions for foods that we could make next class. When I asked her to write them down, she said that she wasn’t able to because she couldn’t spell. One of the staff members then offered to help her spell out the words, and she eagerly handed us a list of four or five dishes she expected us to make next time.
As we were washing dishes after class, Jan made the observation that the only difference she could see between the girls in shelter and the girls in detention was the color of their skin or their gender identity. It was hard for us to differentiate between the struggles that brought each set of girls to CCYC, or the struggles that they experienced here while trying to deal with their situation. To us, it all looked like trauma, and the girls in detention were just as worthy of (and just as eager for) the support of people who were able to see past the labels that had been put on them.
Cooking with ccyc reflection - 11/24
AHHAH wanted to share a Thanksgiving meal with the youth and show our gratitude to the staff at the Chester County Youth Center, so we decided to prepare a proper feast the day before Thanksgiving. We were fortunate to have Jamilah join us, which was a great help, because I would be arriving late from my full-time job and we had lots of sides to make. We each brought a dish or two from home, and then prepared the rest of the dishes with the youth. Jan cooked the turkey, gravy, stuffing, and an assortment of sweet breads for dessert. Jamilah made mac and cheese, and I brought corn pudding, pineapple stuffing, and sweet potato pie.
Jan set the heroic task of making the following side dishes in two hours with the youth: roasted Brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, maple orange sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, cranberry Jezebel, ginger garlic green beans, and Mexican street corn salad. When I arrived an hour into the preparations, everyone was quietly and diligently working. The boys were focused and attentive to the tasks at hand. There was an air of calmness in the room despite all of the activity. Jan told me that she had started the class with a grounding exercise for the boys, and I could easily see the impact that it had.
It really felt like a family affair with everyone pitching in. There were extra staff lending a hand to make sure everything went smoothly. I am so impressed by the staff at CCYC. They are consistently kind, patient, and supportive of Cultivating Change. I’ve seen them model a willingness to try new foods and jump in when a boy or girl needs extra help. They never complain when we send them back to the kitchen to fetch an ingredient that we’ve forgotten. They happily provide feedback on the dishes we make, and are often the tiebreakers when we are deciding on a winning recipe. Certainly the Thanksgiving meal was meant to give the youth a small sense of home while they are away from their families, but it was also for all of the adults who do so much to provide a safe and caring space for the youth as they navigate this challenging time in their lives. Many of them would be away from their families on Thanksgiving because they would be working at CCYC.
As we sat down to our incredibly delicious Thanksgiving feast, I thought about how grateful I was for AHHAH and CCYC and the joy that I feel every time I join Jan and Jamilah for Cultivating Change. Jan and I often walk out of CCYC giddy after class and say that this was the highlight of our week. When I tell people that I work with incarcerated adults and youth in detention, I often get asked, “Aren’t you scared?” That question used to irritate me, but I have come to realize that it is said by those who have never had any contact with those who are in the criminal justice system, and how much your perspective shifts once you have the opportunity to spend time with those who are “doing time.”
COOKING WITH CCYC REFLECTION - 11//21
Nutella French toast roll-ups
Monte Cristo sandwiches
French toast sticks
Ever since the Cultivating Change class about a month ago when we ambitiously made too
many dishes and ran so short on time that the boys barely had time to eat, Jan has restructured
classes. In order to give the boys and girls options, but still allow enough time to eat and discuss the menu, Jan has chosen recipes that are a variation on a theme. We offer up a standard dish, but then show how you can customize it to taste or the ingredients on hand. In this way, we hope that the youth can rediscover, and enjoy, a dish that they may have never liked before, while learning a diversity of cooking techniques in the process. This week’s variation on a theme was French toast.
As we started class, all of the usual suspects were present: a disruptive new boy who had just
arrived to CCYC; several boys who thought the Monte Cristo sandwiches sounded gross and
assured us they wouldn’t eat them; and a sullen boy who kept his head down and his voice
barely above a mumble. Unfortunately, it sounded like the boys had had a tough week. There
were lots of disciplinary infractions, and B. and S. had gotten into a fight. B. wasn’t allowed to
participate in class, and S. was here with his arm in a sling. It looked like it was going to be a
Per usual, Jan and I divided the boys up into two groups to prepare the dishes. I was working
with A. again, as well as two new boys, W. and J. Within just a couple minutes of us getting to
work on the Monte Cristos, J. told me that I had man hands, which I think was supposed to
upset me, but just made me laugh. I guess that was my test, because after that, we were cool,
and we moved on to talking about other things. J. and W. picked out the combination of turkey
(sliced or sausage) and cheese (American or mozzarella) for each sandwich and assembled
them while A. whisked the eggs. A. was happy to be the chef again and jumped right on the
cooking duties. After the sandwiches were ready, we prepared the French toast sticks. A. said
that he wanted to melt chocolate like he learned to do in last week’s class to drizzle over the
sticks. He finished the French toast sticks on his own while the rest of us set the food on the
As everyone sat down to their meals and began to eat, the familiar silence of contentment fell
over the room. No one spoke for several minutes, and then Y., who had been the disruptive
student at the start of class, exclaimed loudly how good everything was, and that “we should
open up a shop!” To which I replied, “Yeah, and we can hire all of you to work there!” No sooner
had the words left my lips, the boys surrounded me excitedly and asked if that could happen.
Jan inquired if they would want to learn restaurant work, and all of them said that they would
enjoy that. They then chatted excitedly about what roles they would want to take on in our
hypothetical cafe. One of the many goals of Cultivating Change is that the class gives them the
hope, and skills, to find personal success. In that moment, Jan and I were able to witness what
it looks like when they can envision a future for themselves beyond the juvenile justice system.
Turkey Pumpkin Chili
Passion tea with lemonade and cider
Chocolate covered pretzels
Zucchini avocado chocolate chip muffins
The energy was low and distracted when we arrived in detention, and as soon as Jan announced the menu to the boys, B. grumbled and said that he wasn’t going to eat the chili. A., who had been so animated and chatty the week before, was slumped over and wouldn’t utter more that two words. It looked like the camaraderie of last week was a distant memory. We broke into teams, with Jan’s crew working on the tea and pupusas. Like last week, I was with A. and T., and we would be making the chili and pretzels.
As we gathered our ingredients, I tried to engage A. to see if he would talk about what was bothering him. He wouldn’t budge. I shifted my focus to T., when we had a confusing conversation about the Descendants, where I thought that we were talking about the rock band, but we were actually talking about a Disney movie. Luckily A. could see what was happening and set me straight, and that was enough to help him forget his worries for the moment. He slowly started to warm up and became more and more involved in the task at hand. One of the supervisors kindly came over to give T. some help with the vegetable prep, and A. took charge of the cooking. T. had never operated a can opener before, so we showed him how to use it and had him practice on the cans of beans, tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and pumpkin. By the last can, he was able to do it on his own. He asked to try the pumpkin, and I explained that is what goes into pumpkin pie. He wondered if we could make pumpkin pie in the next class, so Jan suggested pumpkin pie cream cheese muffins, which everyone got excited about.
A. was doing a great job cooking the chili, and the aroma of it started to fill the room. His pride in his work seemed to lift his spirits, and he commented on how good the chili looked. Once we added the final ingredients, we left it to simmer while we melted the chocolate to dip the pretzels in. The whole time A. spoke animatedly about the recipes he wants to make, and if we could help him eat well so that he can stay in shape during the off-season of football. We chatted away about food while we dipped the pretzels, and B., S., and T. popped over to sneak pretzel rods out of the tub while we worked. With everything ready, A. started ladling out bowls of chili. B. said he wasn’t going to have any, and S. said he would only take a little bit without beans. A. told them that he didn’t care because that would just leave more for him to eat. We convinced everyone to at least take a little bit to taste.
It grew quiet as everyone ate, and then suddenly B. announced through mouthfuls, that “we could open up a shop, because [the chili] is banger!” Several boys went back for seconds, and they used the cheesy pupusas to sop up the chili. At the end of class, they divvied up the pretzels and I had to keep an eye on them to make sure that they wouldn’t take the ones saved for the girls. They left with full bellies and big grins, the feeling of which I hoped would tide them over until we could cook together again.
There was still plenty of food from the boys, so we decided to share the leftovers with the girls and bake the zucchini avocado chocolate chip muffins that we didn’t get to make with them the week before. This week C. was more relaxed around us and accustomed to life in the shelter. She helped to make the muffins and really enjoyed the chili and pupusas. I was pleased to see a bit more of her personality peeking through, and hoped that it would continue.
P. told me that she would be leaving on Wednesday to go live with her mother. It seemed like she said it with an equal mix of excitement and hesitancy. I encouraged her to cook lots of meals for her mom to show off everything she learned in Cultivating Change. She assured me she would. Since A. had left shelter for another placement, I noticed that P. had lost her spark. I missed seeing the two of them joking and laughing while doing each other’s hair when Jan and I walked into the shelter for class. I wondered if A. was experiencing the same struggles without her friend, P. I was worried about what kind of support P. had back home to help keep her moving in the right direction. I hoped that A. would get home from placement soon, so that the girls could continue to offer each other the same encouragement and strength at home that they so willingly gave each other at CCYC.
Heather Leach is Cultivating Change's facilitator and Program Director!