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The culinary arts program achieves results for people with cognitive disabilities

ORLANDO, Fla. – When Arlene Rhodenbeck was looking for a program to help her daughter Shanon pursue her love of cooking, she couldn't find the right one.

Frustrated, Rhodenbeck founded her own nonprofit to help young adults with cognitive disabilities.

Home Of Bright Choices hosts a monthly cooking club, promotes its members' grocery stores, and is now partnering with Valencia College to offer a certificate program for young adults with disabilities.

News 6 first featured Rhodenbeck as a Getting Results Award winner last year. At the time, Rhodenbeck was helping her daughter bake cookies for her small grocery store.

“Shanon has been cooking since she was eight,” said Arlene Rhodenbeck from the family kitchen. “She took over the cooking in the evening, but the baking is a little more difficult because we value precision. You have to measure correctly.”

Shanon is self-taught and follows celebrity video tutorials, apps and cooking shows.

Arlene Rhodenbeck was looking for a program or organization that could help her daughter take the next step and increase her confidence. She came away empty-handed.

“People with special needs often face obstacles when pursuing a career in the culinary arts,” Rhodenbeck said. “These barriers include lack of access to appropriate support and guidance. Programs are often too advanced or not advanced enough.”

So Rhodenbeck started a cooking club to encourage others interested in the culinary arts.

“My hope is that we can offer a program that provides individuals in the culinary arts who may not otherwise have access to it an opportunity to gain skills that will help them throughout their lives and improve their employability,” Rhodenbeck said. “Home Of Bright Choices not only offers a great hands-on dining experience, but is also a lifeline to independence through the art of cooking.”

Now Rhodenbeck and Home Of Bright Choices have partnered with Valencia College to offer the Culinary Skills Certification Program.

The pilot program takes place once a month at the downtown Orlando campus in Valencia.

Rhodenbeck said two certificates will be offered. “If you need a little more support, start with a life skills certificate,” Rhodenbeck said. “Those who have slightly more advanced skills and are more independent will be offered a vocational qualification for use in a commercial kitchen.”

At the moment the group is small to ensure each participant's needs are met.

“Everyone has different needs and abilities, so it has to be right. Even our program isn’t for everyone,” Rhodenbeck said.

Chef Ken Bourgoin is the course instructor. Bourgoin has been teaching for 25 years, but says teaching this group is special.

“My son is hearing impaired. So he goes to a school for the deaf,” Bourgoin said. “So if you look at it that way, it's kind of personal because you want him to be effective and not have to rely on you his whole life.”

Bourgoin said the skills his students learn here could lead to a job. “This is their training ground. We give them time to learn and they can go out and hope the industry embraces them.”

Bourgoin said it didn't take long to realize that these students wanted to be challenged. “When I first taught the class, we made nachos, like a seven-layer dip. And they asked themselves, “Is there anything more difficult than that?” Bourgoin said, stretching his arms and pretending to yawn.

“The idea is to match their speed and give them an idea of ​​what the kitchen is thinking, what the other chefs are thinking.”

Rhodenbeck said the skills could extend beyond the kitchen. “Not everyone wants to work as a baker, start their own home business or cook in a restaurant,” Rhodenbeck said. “You might want to learn to cook but like sales or retail. So we can give them the task of helping someone sell their baked goods. Someone else may be very organized and enjoy organizing things. And we can help them find a job at a bakery, a restaurant or another place where they do inventory.”

Alex Erdmann is dean of the School of Culinary Arts & Hospitality.

“It’s amazing,” Erdmann said. “It's a great start. I don't know anyone who does something like that in this country. I see this as something that can be much bigger.”

Erdmann said the program is a way to screen skills for future employment.

Rhodenbeck hopes to partner with businesses that may be able to offer retail space or catering opportunities to sell the baked goods the organization produces.

She said her hope is that Home Of Bright Choices will one day provide both residential and vocational support for adults with cognitive disabilities.

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