Social Entrepreneurship Recipe for a healthier society

Carol Goar

Take 16 kids from troubled, often violent, homes. They’ve all had brushes with the law. Most have done drugs. None has tasted anything remotely resembling success.

Plunk them in a cooking school, launched by a community activist with a dream and a retailer with a social conscience. Here is what can happen:

“They come the first night, anxious, unsure, all eyeing one another. With each class, they become more comfortable with themselves and each other. They start getting excited about learning how to prepare a meal. For some, cooking becomes a passion or the key to a career. Even those who don’t want to do it for the rest of their lives have fun and learn something.”

The speaker is Marjorie Agnew, owner of The Main Course, a kitchenware store on Avenue Rd. It was her $10,000 that paid for the cooking school.

“What these kids need to turn their lives around are new skills, a new environment and a chance to contribute. This project works at every level. They get out of their neighbourhood, see teamwork, have choices. How many talented people like Marjorie are there who, if they understood the concept, could use their gifts to solve social problems?”

Those are the words of David Lockett, co-founder of PACT (Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation), a non-profit group that gives young offenders a second chance. The school was his idea.

The two are practising what they call social entrepreneurship, a form of philanthropy in which citizens use their skills and ideas, not just their money, to build a healthier community.

It is this kind of engagement — not tougher law enforcement — that ultimately will break the cycle of youth violence, Lockett says.

The cooking school began last February. It is held in the upper-level kitchen of the North York Loblaws store at Empress Walk. Two classes have graduated so far. The third begins on Sept. 26.

It receives no government support. But it isn’t encumbered with bureaucratic rules or endless paperwork.

It costs Agnew about $200 per student. That covers a six-week course, all ingredients and a banquet for seniors at the end.

In the next session, the students will also prepare gift baskets for low-income families. “Can you imagine the young man or woman who made the basket taking it to somebody’s door and finding out how it feels to give?” Agnew asks.

Prospective candidates are referred to the program by crown attorneys and probation officers. The first class was 80 per cent male. The second had a 60:40 male-to-female ratio. Both were a jumble of races and cultures.

Lockett decided to set up the cooking school because there is a gap in Ontario’s youth justice system. Offenders who are told to perform community service often have trouble finding a meaningful placement. Many social agencies can’t afford to take them on. Others give them mindless make-work assignments.

A cooking program, Lockett reasoned, would teach them valuable life lessons; how to work together, the importance of following instructions, the link between effort and accomplishment. It might even steer a few away from junk food.

“I jumped at the idea,” Agnew said. “Here was a chance to do something I loved and make a difference. What was there to lose?”

She attends as many of the classes as she can, pitching in where needed. She helped design the curriculum. She’s demonstrated everything from how to hold a knife to how to set a table.

The high point for her came when the mother of one of the graduates — who had blossomed in the kitchen — approached her in tears and thanked her for giving her son the first real opportunity he’d had. “This is far more rewarding than writing a cheque.”

Agnew has now turned to her suppliers and associates, urging them to sponsor similar projects. “My ambition is to open cooking schools all over Toronto.”

Lockett is busy expanding the concept. He is developing a job registry to help participants use their skills and setting up a scholarship for kids who complete the course and come back as volunteers.

Both co-founders believe the cooking school is just the beginning.

“Think of how many people like me there are, minding their own business, who can do this,” Agnew says.

“It’s a conduit for the community to get involved,” Lockett says. “Too many people are going to bingo rather than volunteering.”

Neither of them pretends that every kid will love cooking. But for three hours a week, they’ll have a chance to let down their guard, be creative, and make something that matters.