Building confidence starts in the kitchen

The Communiversity Youth Program is a low-cost afterschool program sponsored by Carolina's Sonja Haynes Stone Center.

Fifth grader Skye Horton has spent her recent Tuesday afternoons in an unlikely place: the kitchen of Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. Over the past eight weeks, she has learned the basic skills of healthy cooking alongside nine other young Communiversity scholars. Wearing aprons printed with their names, they have chopped, grated, sliced and mixed ingredients from garlic to gnocchi.

Culinary education is Horton’s favorite part of the Communiversity Youth Program, a low-cost afterschool program sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center. It is one of the Center’s longest standing endeavors.

“When Communiversity started in 1992, I’m sure there were a lot of people who thought it wouldn’t last, but here we are, into our 24th year, still working with K-5 students who reside in this very community,” said Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center. “It’s a pleasure to see not only the evolution of a program that started as a ‘Saturday College’ model for local students but also the sacrifices that volunteers who support the program make to ensure the safety and academic and social growth of participants.”

This year ushers in Communiversity’s second year of culinary experiential programming with partners such as Lantern restaurant, SnackChef, TABLE and i9 Sports.

“Connecting with these organizations provides an opportunity to bring these resources directly to the scholars that we’re serving,” said Communiversity manager Chris Wallace. “It’s not just learning how to cook and how to eat healthy, it’s learning a new skill, it’s learning how to measure. You’re incorporating components of science and math, you’re team building, and then, ultimately, you’re building confidence in these scholars.”

A semester’s worth of culinary training culminated in the fourth- and fifth-grade scholars preparing a final feast for their families, which was served the week before Thanksgiving at Lantern restaurant.

Younger scholars who aren’t in the restaurant kitchen learn how to make healthy snacks courtesy Carolina’s SnackChef program.

And all Communiversity scholars receive weekend food bags from TABLE, Inc. in addition to fitness and teamwork clinics hosted by i9 Sports.

“i9 Sport’s point of emphasis is ensuring the scholars are active,” Wallace said. “We want the scholars to understand that being physically fit is just as important as eating healthy.”

Annually, Communiversity serves 40 scholars – 90 percent of whom are African-American and 80 percent of whom are living in poverty – through homework assistance and targeted cultural enrichment activities.

The program runs with the help of 30 UNC-Chapel Hill student volunteers, a diligent workforce that Wallace calls the “backbone of the program.”

Senior biology major Lauren Askew is now in her third year of volunteering with Communiversity and understands how culinary education benefits the scholars with whom she works.

Through her more than 150 hours of volunteer service, Askew has seen a lot of excitement — and messes.

“Every time we finish, the room is a little dirtier,” Askew said. “It’s nice to see their creative energy come out in something that everyone likes, which is food.”

Junior computer science major and Communiversity volunteer Jamal Royster believes that a strong non-parent mentor makes a unique impact on the life of a child.

“The emotional investments that you get working with these kids is amazing,” Royster said.

Royster accompanies the scholars to Lantern each week and said he is amazed by their progress. Watching the scholars make dough from scratch, delicious apple pies and finally a Thanksgiving feast for families shows how far each scholar has come.

“The families may be skeptical at first, but the kids have been making good stuff, so I think the parents will receive the meal graciously.”

During the feast Wallace sees both delight and pride in the faces of the parents.

“I think that’s what you’re looking for. That, along with the scholars standing up there puffing up their chest saying ‘I learned something new, this is what I did,’ and they own it.”

The program takes place at University United Methodist Church from 3 to 5:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday throughout the school year and supports students from six local elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. It serves up to 40 students per year.  School social workers and other school administration help select scholars that might be a good fit for the program. The program requires one $90 dollar application fee the entire year, helping meet the needs of the students