Chef Wendy Zacca runs a smooth kitchen. The majority of her workers are students with developmental disabilities.
“I’ve never set limitations, I treat them as if they were typically developing, and it seems to work for us," said Zacca, an instructor with Easterseals South Florida.
The students, ages 14 to 22, are part of a culinary arts high school program that teaches them independent living skills.
“It’s a predictable environment, so our students understand where they are going, what they’re supposed to do,” explained Camila Rocha, education services director for Easterseals South Florida.
Last year, the unemployment rate for Americans with a disability was almost three times the rate of those without. This Florida program aims to change that by offering young people with special needs a chance to cook up a future career.
And the recipe is proving to be a success.
Stuart Martinez landed a job with Easterseals after graduating in 2013.
“My job is to make sandwiches for the military," Martinez said. “It’s a lot of work, but I’m really good at it as well."
The program focuses on the individual’s strengths with the goal to provide real-life work experience after graduation.
“Whether it’s to cook on a stovetop, bake in the oven, wash dishes," Zacca said. “Allow them to work in the kitchen with you, allow them to clean the floor, allow them to wipe down the counters. Let them be productive.”
These young people not only feel a sense of responsibility but a major sense of accomplishment. Knowing they can do it gives them the confidence they need to move forward.
The culinary arts program in Miami is funded by the Children’s Trust and, as you can imagine, has a long waiting list.
Rocha said if you don’t have a program like this one where you live, reach out to the public schools in your area and see what vocational programs they offer.
Also, you can contact your local Easterseals for more information.