By Marcia Owens
Working with students in the Fountain House College Re-Entry program has to be hands down the most fun and rewarding volunteer job ever! I've never dreamed that I would find such a perfect fit once I retired.
This amazing opportunity allowed me to combine my nursing, teaching, and cooking skills all in one place. The students are highly motivated and they come with varying levels of culinary experience. The best part of the cooking classes is sitting down to a meal prepared together— a time cherished for bonding and building friendships that happen naturally over time.
The students, with the help of the staff, provide recipes that mostly determine the menus for each class. Recipes can come from anywhere, but adjustments are made to swap in more healthy options while keeping it delicious. We take into account each of our own food preferences and restrictions, all while integrating and building upon different cooking skills. It's a real kick to try out things that no one has ever tried before—even some of the students chose to prepare and grill a squid! We have created Healthy Chicken Parmesan, Regular and Vegetarian Bolognese that included textured vegetable protein components in the sauce, and it turned out to be very tasty. From simple Egg Dishes to Shakshuka, Chicken Salads to Salmon Teriyaki, the list goes on and on with what students would choose to cook. And of course working with chocolate, fruits, and other healthy treats even surprised me! It's truly thrilling to discover that some of the students go home and make these meals for themselves and their family. It's easy to see the pride and confidence building over weeks, as each and every student becomes more comfortable preparing meals together.
CRE Students cooking with Marcia
College Re-Entry staff Jason, Anna, Julie, and this year's intern Samene can only be described as incredibly caring, supportive, instructive, and fun. I have gotten to know them more while spending time with them during the cooking class. I believe I'm a good judge of people after having over 40 years of experience as a nurse, hiring and firing my own staff, running a unit, teaching Nursing school, and review courses for nurses taking the boards. I was swept away by the strength of character of the staff who works with the students!
In the beginning of the semester, most students feel lost, alone and worried about the future. I watch week-by-week as personalities come alive, confidence and relationships are built; jokes are shared, and the kitchen and dining room fill with conversation and laughter. It's a real tribute to the relationships built between staff and students that results in such a high success rate of students returning to school. What a joy to see the transformation of students anywhere from 18 to 30 years old, undergraduate and graduate students getting themselves back on track.
Each semester ends with a party to celebrate all the students’ accomplishments. We've made gingerbread houses in the Winter, high tea in the Spring, and a cookout in the Summer.
Fortunately, many of the students decide to remain with College Re-Entry after completing the core program and switches to the flex program. It's incredibly important to receive support once returning to school by dropping into the program housed in a beautiful brownstone that has an atmosphere that could only be described as a wonderful place to study and connect with friends. As they leave, they don't necessarily need to say goodbye as they'll maintain a lasting relationship with friends and mentors. What thrills me the most is to see them continue to grow and develop confidence. Often they join our group for lunch posing as positive role models of the future for the current students, offering hope for a brighter tomorrow.
The only thing that saddens me is how I wish College Re-Entry program existed earlier that could have been a supportive community for my sister who dropped out of Smith College 48 years ago (her sophomore year) due to depression. It took her years to get back to school, and then she never finished pursuing a doctorate. Had she been in Fountain House's College Re-Entry program, she would have realized her greatest dream and one could only wonder how her life would have been different.