Cooking Competition Serves Up New Leaders

Rocket Chef logo copy

The Judges Table

We had a really cool event at Merrimack Hall last week. Rocket Chef: Clash of the Culinary Titans was a sell-out, a big deal for a first-time event. Rocket Chef attracted a diverse audience and brought a lot of newcomers to our venue…they were old and young, foodies and wanna-be chefs, fans of the competitors and friends of the event organizers. The competitors exhibited their amazing skills and talents in a live cook-off. Not only did the organizers raise enough money through corporate sponsorships to pay for the equipment needed to mount this event – stoves, refrigerators, chef’s tables, dishes and utensils of every variety, blenders, food processors and more – but they also netted nearly $18,000 in profits which will be split between our Johnny Stallings Arts Program and The Food Bank of North Alabama.

Like I said, Rocket Chef was…really cool.

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall's production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall’s production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

But as cool as the event turned out to be, the really cool thing about Rocket Chef was the five young professionals who conceived, organized and executed it.

Kyla Green, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Aaron Caradonna and Lauren Battle are all in their late 20’s or early 30’s. When they started this project back in June, the did not know each other. Participants in Leadership Huntsville/Madison County’s Connect program for young professionals, they were randomly placed in a small group and tasked with doing something to address the issue of hunger in our community. They started with no resources, no budget, no precedent for what they wanted to do. All they had was their idea and a single-minded determination to bring their idea to life.

They all have full time jobs. Some of them have babies at home. None of them had much volunteer experience…come to think of it, they’re too young to have much experience at anything! They are in the early stages of careers that are sure to be brilliant – in banking, insurance, hospital administration, broadcast journalism and corporate law.

They utilized every contact in their address books, they called on anyone who could advise them, they listened to everyone who offered guidance, they used every opportunity they came across to build a consensus for this event. They tenaciously invested themselves in their idea and refused to give up…even when they were thrown a curve ball at least once a day. The were motivated by a total commitment to a worthy cause, which is what carried them through the longest days I imagine they’ve ever worked.

The undertaking was monumental in every regard. Just from our end, the logistics were staggering. We’ve presented a lot of things on our stage over the past seven years but four chefs…cooking in three-rounds…live…in front of an audience? Not so much. Props to Martez Clemons, our Production Coordinator, and Melissa Reynolds, our Program and Operations Director, for the brilliant job they did in coordinating everything from ticket sales to stage set up, including but not limited to figuring out how to power up four stoves and all the appliances at the same time, how to light the stage, how to vent the steam coming from the stoves so that our sprinkler system wasn’t activated and more…and more..and more.

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Merrimack Hall’s involvement was just one piece in a huge puzzle that included other non-profits, restaurants, grocery stores, electricians, appliance stores…the sheer number of individuals who bought into this idea and donated their expertise, goods and services blows my mind.

The five event organizers were on a steep learning curve with a short deadline. They had to trust each other, they had to communicate with each other, they had to coordinate every detail with us and The Food Bank, they had to imagine every contingency and prepare for it. And they did it!

The reason I’m so impressed by Kyla, Clarissa, Mike, Aaron and Lauren is because when I was their age, I was just beginning to dip my toes into the volunteer arena. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been on hundreds of committees, worked on dozens of events, been involved in the creation of new projects and my volunteer career culminated with the creation of my own organization that is serving a need that no one in our community has ever attempted to serve. But I didn’t come into my own, didn’t feel the passion it takes to put everything on the line for a cause you believe in until I was about 40 – a good 10-15 years later than the five wunderkids who pulled off Rocket Chef.

When the event ended, the five of them were very proud of themselves…and rightfully so. They celebrated as a team, just the way they did everything else involved with the event. They spent the week coming and going from Merrimack Hall…cleaning up, arranging for storage of appliances until next year’s event, making sure that all unused food was delivered to Manna House and The Food Bank of North Alabama. When they had wrapped it all up they looked…well, they looked exhausted. But they also looked like different people from the five folks who came to me with this wild idea in August.

They looked like seasoned pros…and more importantly, they seemed transformed by their work. I could see it in their eyes and remember that feeling…the first time you realize that you CAN make a difference, you CAN do something to make things better. They are now empowered…emboldened…confident in themselves and I know they will take on bigger challenges in the future. Once you’ve successfully done something that has a positive impact on someone else’s life, you want to experience that feeling again…and again.

Our community’s next generation of servant leaders has been christened and I can’t wait to see what these five people do next!

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

 

 

Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….

 

Not So “Typical” Teens

One of the first things I learned back in 2008 when I first became involved with people who have special needs was that we should refer to people with disabilities as people first – like people with special needs, not special needs people – and that those of us who don’t have disabilities should be referred to as “typical.” After spending seven  years working with our teenage volunteers, I can tell you that there’s nothing typical about any of them.

When I first got the idea to try teaching dance to kids with special needs, I knew that the normal teacher/pupil ratio wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to limit my program to one type of disability; I wanted any child who wanted to participate in the arts to join. But that meant being prepared for children with a wide variety of challenges – verbal, physical, social – and in the beginning, we only had two teachers…Hayley Henderson and me. Even though I limited class size to 10 students, I knew that with an age range of 3-12 and with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, spina bifida and others, we were gonna need some help.

Hayley turned to the kids in the Huntsville High School Show Choir, led by her mother and Choral Department Director Sherry Smith, for help. She rounded up 9 kids – and I threw in Austin to get us up to an even 10 – and we had our first crop of typical students to serve as program volunteers. I had no idea back then that relationships between students, volunteers and the families of both would form outside the walls of Merrimack Hall. Once they’ve graduated, our volunteers return to visit us on school breaks, take their former students out for lunch and visit them each time they’re home from college. Our program is proof that both sides benefit when we are all integrated together.

I’m amazed…and grateful…when, year after year, teenagers come to us from all over North Alabama. These typical teens are already exceptional – all of them are high-achieving, budding philanthropists with too many talents to list – and the friendships they share with our students are, well, they’re pretty special.

We honored 9 seniors at our Spring Recital – 5 typical kids and 4 kids with special needs. In the first half of this short video, the volunteers say, in their own words, what our students have meant to them; the second half is me, talking about our students. For anyone who wonders how “typical” kids could benefit from having kids with special needs in their classrooms, and in their lives, this video says it all.

Luckily, we will still have our Project UP seniors with us next year but our volunteers will be off to college – every one of them having received prestigious scholarships. Halle Ragan, Emily Dean, Peyton Davis, John Chilton and Bailey Kinnard, we will miss you so much! These typical teens, and the 50 who have already graduated, took our first little dance class and have turned it into something I never could have imagined. Anytime I try to thank any of them for their service, they tell me that they’re the ones who should be thanking us…for lessons learned, for joy received and for the privilege of friendship with kids who have special needs.