PACT URBAN PEACE PROGRAM, TORONTO

Culinary class seeks to impart lessons about food, life, taking right path

Youth offenders stirring the pot

Culinary class seeks to impart lessons about food, life and taking the right path

By JORDAN PRESS

Monday, April 4, 2005 Page A10

Kathleen Shaughnessy takes a piece of ginger and hands it to the teenager at her left.

He takes a sniff and cringes.

She then turns to the young man on her right and lets him smell the pungent root.

He turns away for a second and then laughs.

“That’s exactly how ginger ale smells, but stronger,” said the teen, who is dressed in a yellow shirt, jeans, untied sneakers and an Oakland Athletics hat.

Ms. Shaughnessay, a George Brown College chef training student, is helping the cooking class today. The students are using ginger in pork dumplings everyone will eat in about an hour.

The students’ status as young offenders landed them a place in a class with lessons designed to stretch well beyond the culinary.

The class is part of a program, run by PACT, which is an acronym for participation, acknowledgment, commitment and transformation, that aims to make young offenders aware of what they have done and allow them the chance to take a different path in life, said David Lockett, co-founder of PACT.

The program, which uses the theories of aboriginal healing circles, also includes discussion sessions between victims and offenders. The cooking classes bring another perspective.

“People are saying these kids are bad,” he said. “We’re saying, there’s genius in everyone.

“If you don’t want them to go through an identity shift, throw them into the court system.”

The stories of the dozen teens and preteens in the class are similar. They are all young offenders, convicted of criminal activity, but under the age of 18.

Under the terms of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, they have to give back to their community somehow, which is what this six-week cooking class is for. In some cases, the teens were given the choice between attending the classes or other community activities. In other cases, judges ordered them to attend.

“It was this or look like a bad person,” one of the teens said. He was convicted of assault after he got into an altercation with his friend over a girl.

“It’s not like one of those anger management classes,” another youth said. He was convicted of assault and then failure to comply after not attending the classes.

This is the first time PACT has run a class like this, and Mr. Lockett said his organization plans to run others, including a film class.

The five-year-old PACT program is privately funded and reports a 90 per cent reduction in re-offending rates among participants. It runs out of Youth Courts in Toronto and York Region and may soon be run in Peel.

When the students graduate next week, they’ll get to prepare a meal for their families and Chief Justice Roy McMurtry.

The group has come a long way. Teenagers and volunteers say no one really talked to each other in the first week and participants wouldn’t ask questions of the instructors.

Even before starting, some students worried it would be boring.

“I was like, uh, I’m going to be around old people,” said one teenager wearing a headband with Jamaican colours. Now? “I like it.”

Before he came to the class, the teenager said, he couldn’t cook anything besides macaroni and cheese. Now he can make Caribbean and Chinese dishes with ease, and if he had the ingredients at home, he’d cook them for his family.

After four weeks of classes at the community kitchen in the Empress Walk mall in North York, students have meshed. They even hang out after the lessons.

“This is week four. They’ve completely bonded as a group,” said Brenda Kwong Hing, the chef in charge of the class.

She admits she was a little intimidated at the thought of teaching young offenders how to cook, but “They’ve been great. I didn’t think they’d be as creative [as they are].”

SHOP PACT LEATHER GOODS ~ STORE NOW OPEN!