Heat is on young offenders

Cooking class proves a success Part of alternative justice program

by Isabel Teotonio

Six weeks ago he never thought he could cool his temper and chill with a bunch of guys. Nor did he dream it would happen in a cooking class.

But that’s exactly the case for one 17-year-old who yesterday completed a six-week cooking class offered by PACT, a Toronto program tackling youth crime outside the justice system.

The event, in the community kitchen of Loblaws North York Empress Walk, was marked by a graduation ceremony catered by the 12 young chefs who completed the program and attended by Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry.

“This cooking class has taught me I could get along with people,” said the 17-year-old, who by law cannot be identified.

“Now, I’m standing next to a guy, chopping away and having a discussion,” he said. “Six weeks ago I could never do that.”

Consider him just one of many poster children for PACT, which has been shown to reduce the young offender reoffence rate by 90 per cent.

PACT, an acronym for participation, acknowledgment, commitment and transformation, was developed to decrease the burden on the courts while reducing youth crime. The Crown, on the advice of police, may divert cases of young offenders to PACT if they’re willing to accept responsibility for their actions.

The first step of the program is a healing circle that recreates the events of a crime, which is attended by the arresting officer, the victim, the offender, and his or her parents. A binding resolution is drawn up and must be followed in order to avoid charges. Afterward, youth may have to pay restitution to the victim, attend anger management classes or write a letter of apology.

The final PACT step is community service. But until the launch of this cooking class, PACT didn’t run its own community service programs. That’s about to change. For now, the cooking school will sizzle just in North York, but there are plans to expand it throughout the city. Other classes are also in the works, such as a film class, a farm in the city and a discovery class.

They’re great community service options that give kids the chance to hook into something positive and possibly discover new passions, said Terance Brouse of PACT, who cooked up the idea for a cooking school.

The PACT cooking course, sponsored fully by the kitchen-goods retailer The Main Course, is a weekly three-hour class that culminates with the chance to create a meal for lonely seniors.

“At first it was kind of weird coming here,” said an 18-year-old young offender.

“I mean, there’d be a whole bunch of knives with a bunch of criminals. But look at everyone,” she said, pointing around the kitchen as teens were sampling each other’s dishes.

“We all get along.”

That’s the point, said PACT co-founder David Lockett.

“I’ve noticed a lot of bonding, they’ve learned a practical skill, and some are even interested in taking this to the next level and want to become chefs,” he smiled.

“The unique thing about this is the power of the community.”