Stick A Fork In It culinary classes help build children’s character

When Lowndes County elementary school teacher Shawntay Gray began brainstorming ideas to take her love for teaching outside the traditional classroom, she envisioned ways to inspire children through creativity and new opportunities they may not have access to at home and in their communities.

Shawntay Gray

Looking back on her own childhood, Gray said she recalled how cooking in the kitchen with her mother shaped her as an adult and educator. In 2021, she made those childhood memories the inspiration for starting the Montgomery nonprofit Stick A Fork In It Culinary Classes For Kids.

“I don’t have a culinary background. I pretty much learned how to cook by watching and helping my mom when I was younger,” she said. “I also enjoy watching cooking shows and trying the recipes out at home and sharing them with my family.”

Since 2021, Stick A Fork In It has been serving children ages 8 to 16 in the River Region by providing mobile culinary classes that offer tasty, hands-on cooking experiences with foods from cultures around the world, Gray said.

“We provide them with recipes that are simple and easy to follow,” she said. “In turn, cooking teaches children resilience, leadership skills, as well as builds strong reading, math, science, and listening and collaborative skills, which all can contribute to a healthy self-esteem.”

An educator for 18 years, Gray said her culinary classes, which are also sponsored by the Rufus A. Lewis Library in Montgomery, have impacted the lives of more than 70 children. Classes are sponsored semi-annually on a first-come, first-serve basis registration process.

“I can recall from the very first class, two young ladies were so elated with the meal that they prepared and cooked themselves that they just hugged each other and cried,” she said. “They shared that they have never had that experience before.”

Cooking up character

In Stick A Fork In It culinary classes, students are given background knowledge or a fun fact about what is being prepared that day while experimenting or playing games to learn about ingredients, from spices to fruits and vegetables. Students also receive lessons on how to use utensils — such as measuring cups and lemon zesters — and appliances that will be needed for preparing recipes. To emphasize the importance of collaboration, students are divided into teams, which are each given a recipe to follow and execute.

“Once that is done, we visit each team’s station to taste and critique their dish followed by clean up,” Gray said. “Our goal is to teach them that in life mistakes will be made, and that it’s important to be able to prepare a meal for yourself.”

While the concept of introducing children to cooking is not new, Gray said Stick a Fork In It is helping to reach Montgomery youth in a unique way that was not always available in the community.

As the popularity of her nonprofit grows, Gray is working to increase Stick A Fork In It’s visibility in the community and funding to offer more culinary classes in a dedicated location.

“Slots in our classes are often filled within minutes of being made available because of the improvement parents see and that we see in student participants,” she said. “Students walk away with more confidence in themselves. Many are shy and are fearful of making mistakes when they begin in the class, but by the end of the class they are laughing, making new friends, and demonstrating leadership, resilience and tenacity. Parents are also surprised when they see their child come out of their shells.”

She invites members of the community to come observe classes or to even serve as a guest chef in a class, Gray said.

“Stick A Fork In It has become a unique way to introduce youth to the fun and tasty world of the culinary arts,” she said. “We love seeing our participants have a fully immersive experience executing recipe models while utilizing and building collaborative and leadership skills.”

How to Support Stick A Fork In It

What: Stick A Fork In It Culinary Classes for Kids

Cost: $15 per child

When: Book a class in July with Shawntay Gray. The Rufus A. Lewis Library will sponsor a class in August.

Information: Learn how to donate to support Stick A Fork In It Culinary Classes for Kids and about upcoming dates for classes by visiting www.stickaforkinitmontgomery.org or follow Stick A Fork In It on Facebook. You can contact Shawntay Gray at sgray@stickaforkinitmontgomery.org  or (334) 354-0625.

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