Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crackers Bistro students learn valuable life skills

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THIS classroom has no textbooks, no computers, no chalk or desks or maps. But the students at Crackers Bistro may never find a better place to learn.

The bistro, a 40-seat restaurant in Windsor Park, is home to a unique program that sees special education students from nearby Windsor Park Collegiate prepare and serve food to paying customers as part of their high school education.

"There are kids who come in here with their heads down, and after they've worked here a while they don't do that anymore," said Linda Coombs, director of the Crackers Bistro program. "I love it. I like how rewarding it is to see the kids actually take the pastry and roll it over the top of the pie, and they just stop and stare at it and say, 'I did it!'"

The restaurant is open for lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The students help prepare and serve daily specials, as well as menu items like quesadillas, lasagna, chicken wraps, chef's salad, and quiche. Everything is made from scratch, right down to peeling fresh apples for pie filling, and much of the work is done by the students, said Coombs.

The students also make take-out deliveries, and Coombs said that by the end of this year she'd even like to see them making the produce runs to stock the kitchen.

The 14 students in the program range in age from 14 to 21 and face a variety of physical and mental challenges.

"It's a pretty good place, with good friends," said one student, who's been working at Crackers since last year. Last week, he served customers for the first time after working behind the scenes in the kitchen for months. "It was awesome," he said.

Another student, a four-year veteran at the restaurant, said she now cooks at home for her family sometimes, after having perfected her culinary skills at the bistro.

"It was very hard (at first)," she said. "But I got used to the jobs and I'm basically used to everything now. Most of the time it's fun here."

The program was started by a Windsor Park Collegiate teacher named Ennie Arnal, and at first it ran just one day a week in the school. The program became popular and moved into a former deli close to the school, where it will be celebrating its fifth year of operation in January; a remarkable success in the often brutal restaurant industry.

Coombs said the program is important to teach the kids useful life skills like cooking, cleaning, and interacting with the public. It's equally important for the public to come in and see that these kids can fit in very well in society, if only given the guidance and the chance, she said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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