Greater Good By Joining Forces

It’s been said that oil and water don’t mix. But when the “oil” comes from an automotive class, and the “water” is an ingredient of culinary arts training, it’s a winning combination. Case in point: Ken Cook and Tracy Horton’s SkillsUSA chapter at Norwalk (Calif.) High School.

Working together, the school’s automotive and culinary students were recognized as a SkillsUSA Model of Excellence. Thanks to this designation, doors opened and support poured in.

Model of Excellence Winners

Counter-clockwise from left: Culinary arts instructor Tracy Horton, automotive teacher Ken Cook, automotive student Kimberly Sanchez and culinary student Daisy Benavidez have teamed up to serve their community while earning their chapter the distinction of being a SkillsUSA Model of Excellence two years in a row.

This big win created “a lot of positive momentum for our chapter,” says Cook, automotive instructor for the Southeast Regional Occupational Program. It not only provided the recognition that was needed to present to board members -and administrators, “it also validated us with our community,” he adds.

“Our community saw the press release [and said] ‘Wow! This is what’s happening at Norwalk High School.’ They started asking questions. They started making phone calls, you know, ‘How can we connect with your students? How can we support what’s happening? Because it sounds like what’s going on over at Norwalk High School is really great.’ ”

SkillsUSA’s Models of Excellence program honors the 24 best chapters nationwide based on their efforts in implementing the SkillsUSA Framework. During SkillsUSA’s national conference, finalists participate in interviews, make a formal presentation and attend a recognition dinner and awards ceremony. Lowe’s Companies Inc. sponsors the activities and provides $2,000 grants to each of the chapters from across the country who earn the Model of Excellence status.

The SkillsUSA Framework is a way to show how student members develop personal, workplace and technical skills. For example, when Cook teamed up with culinary arts instructor Horton, their students built a mobile kitchen used to cater many school events. In this unlikely pairing of disciplines, many of Cook’s students, 85 percent of whom have disabilities, learned how to collaborate with those in the culinary program.

Horton, a regional SkillsUSA coordinator in California, is also a certified SkillsUSA trainer. After learning about the Models of Excellence program, she couldn’t do training without trying it.

The instructor says she quickly realized that the recognition program gave structure to what she’d already been doing. “And I really thought, ‘So, let’s do it; let’s get it done. We do all this stuff anyway, and this will just help us kind of put it into writing and get the recognition for what it is that we do.’ ”

Horton has her students doing catering projects because, as she says, “If you’re going to be in the culinary industry, you need to know how to not just produce one item, you have to produce 500.” She adds that this on-site work identified such real-life challenges as “Where do we wash our hands, and how do we keep our food cold?” as well as “I have to bring everything.” The solution was the mobile kitchen, and thanks to Cook’s students, they got it.

Partners for the long haul

Relationships between the classes formed quickly, as did the partnership with their local Lowe’s store. As Cook’s students built the trailer, the culinary arts students developed how the kitchen should be set up. The work gave members in both areas the opportunity to show their personal strengths, two students in particular.

To present the project’s automotive aspects to the Chapter Excellence panel, Cook says he chose student Kimberly Sanchez for not only great technical skills but also her tremendous compassion for others and always helping her classmates to be the best they can be.

Likewise, Horton singled out Daisy Benavidez, an aspiring pastry chef. Besides the student’s clear passion for the industry, Horton recognized her as the one that other students sought out during class for clarification on instructions. Benavidez made the suggestion to have ovens for baking on the catering trailer, resulting in a bigger, better mobile kitchen.

The SkillsUSA/Lowe’s grant helped the chapter purchase the trailers and the appliances to outfit the kitchen. Norwalk Lowe’s store manager Angie Smith went above and beyond to help stretch the grant dollars, according to Cook. “We’ve had a few industry partners in the past, but nothing like Lowe’s,” he says.

“We encountered all kinds of problems throughout the build,” the instructor adds, noting that his background is automotive, not electrical or plumbing. “Any time we would have an issue regarding one of those, we’d reach out to the Lowe’s experts. We’d take our students down there. Our students would interact with their employees, and their employees really guided our project along. So, I really don’t feel like we could’ve done the project without Lowe’s.”

Developing this great relationship led to being asked to cater the Lowe’s Pro Event. “They get all their VIP accounts, they invite them to Lowe’s, they serve them food, and they do some demonstrations on the latest and greatest products out there,” Cook explains.

Lowe’s has invited Norwalk High to cater future events, and Smith allowed the chapter to use the store site to hold a Veterans’ Day event. Cook, an Army veteran, wanted to show appreciation for those who’ve served, but it was also a way to show local residents how invested Lowe’s is in the community.

At this event, it was clear. Cook says the store manager “gave us a few of her employees to help out when they weren’t busy. In fact … her human resource manager was actually, at one point, on the cart helping some of our students cook.”

These connections inside the school have made for a win-win-win: an automotive program led by a man named “Cook” collaborating with culinary arts students; better relationships with Lowe’s, a valued SkillsUSA partner; and better visibility for the chapter in the community.

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