ProStart ambassadors cook for a cause

The bell rings and several dozen students tumble into Alice Whittaker’s ProStart classroom at Harbor High School in Aberdeen, Wash.

Backpacks land on the floor, notebooks are plunked onto tables and the teens shrug off their hoodies, replaced by a different type of coat.

ProStart is a two-year program that brings industry professionals together with teachers in the classroom to help students complete and accredited curriculum that will launch successful careers in the hospitality industry or prepare them for college.

As Whittaker’s class suits up in chef garb, they make the transition from high school kids to budding culinarians. Any trademark adolescent moodiness thaws a bit as the students start to put the finishing touches on their current project — pie.

A swirl of flavors emerges, ornamental chocolate curls are shaved and whipped cream is dabbed. Wild blackberry, chocolate amaretto, white chocolate raspberry and pumpkin, among others — all made for a cause greater than a class grade.

Money from the sale of these pies will eventually be used to assist the residents of an impoverished village in China.

Whittaker’s ProStart students have been selected to participate in an ambassadorship, sponsored by Oprah’s Angel Network. The “O Ambassadors” program, designed to help American students become engaged and philanthropic global citizens, is a school-based initiative carried out in classrooms across the country.

The goals of the “O Ambassadors” program were designed to sync with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which are focused on four major issues affecting the world today: poverty, education, health and the need for sustainable development.

Whittaker, an Oprah enthusiast, first learned about the program from an episode of the media mogul’s daytime talk show.

She immediately knew her ProStart students would be an ideal fit for a project in which the participants focus on helping others in need, instead of focusing on their own disadvantages. Harbor High is an alternative school, where more than 80 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced price lunches. This is a group of students that understands the specifics of financial hardship. Some of them have spent time in juvenile detention, others have children of their own and some do not live with their parents.

Focusing on those problems, Whittaker believes, is not a productive strategy.

“I want to teach them the difference between true poverty and opportunity,” Whittaker says. “Many of our students are financially disadvantaged, but they have opportunities that their peers in other countries don’t have.”

The Harbor High ProStart class has set a goal to raise $2,500 before the end of the school year. Their fundraising efforts have included carryout dinner sales for the school’s staff, a box lunch sale, daily gourmet coffee bar sales and now, the pie offerings. Faculty members were invited for a special sampling of available pies and urged to order their holiday desserts from the class.

Michelle Mitchell, a senior, and Marissa DeYoung, a sophomore, whipped up a chilled raspberry cream pie, recipe courtesy of Rachael Ray.

“She’s the bomb,” says Michelle Mitchell, of the famous 30-minute recipe queen. “And I like that Italian guy with the red hair… Mario Batali. I want to be a cook, too”

Classmate Gaby Vasquez, a junior, is already making strides in the foodservice industry. The ambitious teen, who works part-time at a local fast food restaurant, has managers at three of the chain’s locations vying for her work ethic and kitchen acumen.

But Gaby likely won’t be in a fast food kitchen for long; she loves baking and is mulling over the possibility of becoming a pastry chef. Her curiosity for culturally diverse cuisine excitement over the ProStart curriculum has made her first year in the program a stunning success.

“I really enjoy cooking, and this class has been such a great experience,” Gaby says, while getting ready to finish up her black-bottom banana cream pie. “I’ve always done the baking at my house, during the holidays and everything, so this class is really fun.”

Whittaker was one of the first teachers in the state to pilot ProStart in Washington schools. At Harbor High, in particular, the program’s benefits are immeasurable, Whittaker says.

“Helping them to learn a skill or maybe pick up a new hobby can encourage more positive behaviors after school and on weekends,” Whittaker explains. “If ProStart provides anything for them, it shows them that they can learn productive skills and have a positive future.”

Freshman Steven Lee, who is in his first year of ProStart, says he is happy to be gaining those skills. Lee and classmate, senior Cory Pearce, created a frozen Orange Julius pie.

“It’s nice to know that if I need to get a job in cooking, I can,” Steven says. “I’m glad I’m learning how to survive on my own. The things we make are recipes with simple ingredients. It’s just that knowing that I have the skills I would need to get a job — that’s what I like best about the class.”

Students like Lee are well-suited to participate in “O Ambassadors” program, according to Jonah Kanter, a youth coordinator with the organization. Kanter says that after talking with Whittaker, he knew her ProStart class would grasp the importance of the project.

“The students who attend the school face many social and economic hardships, and Alice was very clear in outlining why she thought they would benefit from this type of program,” Kanter says. “We try to find schools that will put their own unique spin on the implementation of the program. Alice wanted to implement the program within a culinary arts class, with the prime means of fundraising and awareness being through cooking. We thought this was really neat, so we didn’t hesitate to accept Harbor High into the program.”

By Heather Donahoe

Categories: Training & Education