The culinary arts program getting results for people with cognitive disabilities

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

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

Home Of Bright Choices holds a monthly cooking club, promotes the members’ cottage food businesses, and now partners with Valencia College to offer a certificate program for young adults with disabilities.

News 6 first profiled Rhodenbeck as a Getting Results Award winner last year. At the time, Rhodenbeck was helping her daughter bake cookies for her small cottage food business.

“Shanon has been cooking since she was about eight years old,” Arlene Rhodenbeck said from the family kitchen. “She’s taken over the evening cooking, but baking is a little more difficult because we emphasize preciseness. You have to measure correctly.”

Shanon is self-taught, following along with video tutorials, apps, and celebrity cooking shows.

Arlene Rhodenbeck looked for a program or organization that could help her daughter take the next step and build her confidence. She came up empty.

“Individuals with special needs often hit barriers when seeking a career in the culinary arts,” Rhodenbeck said. “Those barriers include a lack of access to appropriate support and instruction. Programs are often too advanced or not advanced enough.”

So, Rhodenbeck started a cooking club to encourage others who had an interest in the culinary arts.

“My hope is that we can provide a program that provides an avenue for individuals in the culinary arts, who may not be able to access them otherwise and for them to gain skills that will help them throughout their lives and increase their employability,” Rhodenbeck said. “Home Of Bright Choices not only creates a great culinary hands-on experience but also a ‘lifeline’ to independence through the culinary arts.”

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 Valencia’s Downtown Orlando campus.

Rhodenbeck said two certificates are being offered. “Those who require a little more support are starting with a life skills certificate,” Rhodenbeck said. “Then those who have a little more advanced skills, and are more independent, there’s a vocational certificate to use in a commercial kitchen that is being offered.”

Right now the group is small to ensure each participant’s needs are met.

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

Chef Ken Bourgoin is the class 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 deaf school,” Bourgoin said. “So when you when you look at it from that, it’s kind of personal, because you want him to be effective, and not have to rely on you his entire life,”

Bourgoin said the skills his students learn here can lead to a job. “This is their training ground. We’re giving them time to learn and they can go out and hopefully, the industry will embrace them.”

Bourgoin said it didn’t take long to learn these students want to be challenged. “When I first taught the class we did nachos, like a seven-layer dip. And they were like, is there anything harder than this?” Bourgoin said, stretching his arms and pretending to yawn.

“The idea is to come up to their speed and give them an idea of what the kitchen is thinking, what the other cooks are thinking.”

Rhodenbeck said the skills can go beyond the kitchen. “Not everybody is going to want to work as a baker or have their own cottage business or cook in a restaurant,” Rhodenbeck said. “They may want to learn to cook but like sales or retail. So we may put them in a role helping someone sell their baked goods. Somebody else may be very organized and enjoy organizing things. And we may help them find placement at a bakery or restaurant or other venue where they take inventory.”

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

Erdmann said the program would be a way to verify proficiency for future employment.

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

She said her hope is that Home Of Bright Choices will one day offer residential as well as vocational support for adults with cognitive disabilities.

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Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.

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