GREENFIELD — Gearen Day’s hands shake as he pulls apart the lettuce, leaf by leaf dropping ever so slowly into the salad bowl.
The carrot-peeler, he passes off.
He knows better.
“That, I sometimes don’t trust myself with,” he grins.
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But his confidence is building.
Day is developmentally disabled. He’s also a softball player, a proud member of a local Bible study and — as of Tuesday’s cooking class for adults with special needs — one mean spaghetti chef.
Day isn’t sure if he likes to cook or just likes to eat. There’s no time to argue each side, though; not with garlic bread in the oven.
The scene makes Kaylee Tutrow smile.
The Greenfield-Central High School senior made it all possible — a time when people of all abilities come together to share a meal.
Tutrow is the impetus behind the high school’s newly created cooking club, which empowers adults with disabilities to live more independently by teaching them simple recipes they can make at home.
Greenfield-Central students lead the cooking lessons, working side by side with participants to walk them through each step of making a meal.
The club hosted its first class late last year and is gaining momentum as word spreads.
Tutrow reached out to a variety of social service agencies as plans began to come together for the club, but she admits she had modest expectations.
“Originally, I thought maybe I could have two or three people come,” Tutrow said.
Tuesday, 16 turned out for the dinner of spaghetti, salad and garlic bread.
Tamara Winkle, an employee of Bethesda Lutheran Communities in Greenfield, accompanied Day to Tuesday’s cooking class.
Day attended the first class in November and had been itching to come back for another turn in the kitchen, Winkle said.
Standing over a hot stove brings a kind of satisfaction to Day that a lot of other people can’t understand.
“It gives him a sense of freedom,” she said.
Of course, there are moments when she feels protective of her charge.
Tuesday, she watched anxiously as Day pushed the skillet of turkey sausage just off the gas burner, exposing the flame. Realizing his mistake, Day reached gingerly for the handle, moving the pan back into position.
Winkle’s coworker, Jennifer Lynch, leaned over to quietly reassure her.
“He’s got this,” she whispered. “I know you’re a bit nervous, but he’s got this.”
Meeting a need
Tutrow said the idea to start the cooking club came to her after a conversation with her mother, who works with adults with disabilities.
Her mother helps connect her clients with state-provided resources.
But there is one need that consistently goes unmet.
So many can’t cook — not because they can’t; because they’ve never been taught.
“Because of that, they have to go out to eat or buy frozen meals,” Tutrow said.
That can be expensive and often unhealthy.
Besides, there is such joy in cooking, and everyone deserves the chance to experience it, she said.
Lyndsey Henderson knows all about that. Tuesday, she took the lead at the stove.
She boiled the spaghetti noodles just so. The turkey sausage cooked until the pink was gone.
Henderson, 26, lives in a group home in Greenfield. She pores over cookbooks, challenging herself to try new recipes.
The cooking club has given her the opportunity to continue building on what has already become a passion.
“It makes me happy that I’m cooking,” she said.
As she dished piles of slippery noodles onto each plate, a question arose about the tan-tinted pasta.
Her eye widened.
“It’s wheat noodles,” she said. “They’re healthier.”
Henderson isn’t content just to cook for her friends; she wants them to discover the same love she has found.
Brandy McConnell attended the cooking club Tuesday at Henderson’s urging.
McConnell lives alone, and she admits she’s not the most skilled in the kitchen.
“I like to cook, but sometimes, I set off the smoke detector.”
Michelle Overman, faculty adviser for the cooking club, beams with pride when she talks about Tutrow’s efforts.
Overman claims no credit; her only contribution has been to foot the grocery bill.
Overman, a family and consumer science teacher, leads Greenfield’s chapter of Family Career and Community Leaders of America. When Tutrow approached her with her idea, Overman encouraged her to join FCCLA, lending the initiative the support of the entire club.
Overman let Tutrow take the lead from there, knowing her student would gain leadership skills to serve her life long in the process.
“When you think of a project, it’s yours, and you have more passion for it,” Overman said. “And the younger kids, you can tell they’re like ‘Next year, this could be me.’”
Tuesday, the group served up more than plates of pasta. They built relationships with people they might not otherwise have met. The club is empowering its members as much as the participants, Overman said.
“(It’s) giving the kids a chance to realize that there’s all kinds of people in the world,” she said. “The need goes beyond themselves.”
The participants so far have varied in their skill level and ability to communicate with their young teachers. Some, like Day and Henderson, take charge with little assistance.
Others hang back, preferring to watch.
Fannie Shepherd isn’t one for waiting around.
She set her group’s table with the efficiency of a waitress navigating the lunchtime rush.
Shepherd took it upon herself to find the cups and assure that a napkin, neatly folded in a triangle, accompanied each place setting.
Would there be tomatoes on the salad? She needed to know.
“We don’t have to cook tonight (at home),” she said, “because we’re here.”
Of course, not everyone will go home knowing how to make the meal.
It doesn’t matter.
This is the kind of food that feeds the soul.
Before he took the first bite, Day folded his hands in prayer.
His message to the good Lord was too quiet to hear, but those gathered around the table listened hard for the “amen.”
That was the signal: It’s time to eat.
The Greenfield-Central High School Cooking Club welcomes adults with special needs each month to learn to make a simple meal. If you know someone who would like to attend, contact Michelle Overman, firstname.lastname@example.org.