Quest Food Management Services educates children with special needs

Students in a special program at St. Charles (Illinois) East High School get hands-on experience with a commercial kitchen—the school cafeteria. Each day, a team of two or three joins the foodservice crew for a lesson or two to help prepare, learning both life skills and potential job skills along the way.

Reaching Independence through Support and Education, or RISE, provides individual instruction and support to Community Unit School District 303 students with intellectual or multiple disabilities. The program combines academics, communication and self-advocacy to foster ultimate student independence.

Part of the day is dedicated to academics — reading, writing and arithmetic, says Christina Colclasure, a RISE teacher. Students also learn life skills such as grocery shopping and participate in work-based learning experiences.

In the canteen kitchen, students are instructed in sanitary procedures and simple tasks. RISE job coaches, who are special education teaching assistants, are available to assist students when needed.

“It’s always amazing how they keep sanitation on top of things,” said Sandra Biasetti, food service director at Quest Food Management Services, which operates restaurants at two district high schools. “When they come in, the first thing they do is wash their hands and then put on hairnets.”

“Sometimes we have problems with the chefs who do these things,” adds Biasetti, laughing.

Students are shown how to complete tasks such as arranging cookie dough, wrapping the baked product, topping up beverage coolers, and preparing frozen pizzas for baking.

Cookie duty is arguably the most popular activity – on Fridays, students are allowed to try some of their handicrafts as a “payday” for their efforts.

Each hands-on session lasts 30 to 45 minutes and students spend a semester in the kitchen.

The students are a welcome presence in the kitchen, says Biasetti. “They are such happy kids and look forward to their work,” she notes. Once they have completed their assigned tasks, they usually ask what else they can do. The staff and students typically develop a friendly relationship during the semester. A student whose second language is Spanish likes to joke around with a staff member who also speaks Spanish. The students notice when an employee is out of the office during the day.

“With all my heart I love to have her,” notes Biasetti.

Colclasure has also recognized the connection. “All the employees love her,” she says.

Not only do the students bring a positive vibe to the kitchen, they also reduce the workload, at least a little. For example, even helping to pan the cookies means, “I don’t have to do that or find someone to finish 150 cookies,” says Biasetti.

While one of RISE’s goals is to learn more about cooking, cleaning, and basic hygiene for future independent living, experiencing a working kitchen promises another potential benefit for students: a job. Understanding work processes and the importance of sanitation is invaluable and their participation in the team could give them an advantage when applying for a position in the hospitality industry.

A few years ago, a former RISE student actually ended up on the department’s payroll. “She was autistic, but she was very smart, especially with numbers,” Biasetti recalls. She found a way to meet this condition: “I had to be very direct with her.” Working with a job coach from RISE, Biasetti created a list of daily tasks and had it laminated. “If I gave her the exact same tasks, she would do well.”

“What Sandra does is so important to our student community,” notes Colclasure. “It’s so difficult for people with intellectual disabilities to get a job, but they are hard workers and they bring so much to a work environment.”

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