COLUMBIA — Mornings are busy. There are fruit salads to make, cucumbers to chop, crackers to bake and a lot of excitement for the 15 apron-clad children at Young Skillet Summer Camp.
But Myke Gemkow is a calming presence. On a recent Wednesday, the Columbia Community Montessori teacher repeats a mantra to harness the kids' attention: "Show me you are ready. Show me you are ready."
What: A fundraiser for Young Skillet. The Gemkow brothers will show a documentary on the program and answer questions in a panel that will include one Skilleteer.
When: From 6 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4
Where: Ragtag Cinema, 10 Hitt St.
His patience pays off. The kids know the day won't progress if he doesn't have their full attention — and there's a lot to do in a day.
Young Skillet, organized by Columbia Community Montessori, is a three-week long day camp available to the children of the city's First Ward free of charge. They learn cooking and gardening skills, but it's not all about food. With help from the program's co-founder, Dan Gemkow, Myke's brother, the kids film the day's activities, conduct interviews and do cooking demonstrations that later air on Columbia Access Television.
"I'm 36, and he's 35, and we kind of grew up like twins," Myke said, "and we complement each other in the way we work together."
On the show, their friend Craig Horn played "The Professor" who traveled to farms to teach how food grows.
In 2008, Columbia Community Montessori formalized Young Skillet as a three-week camp, and their first DVD was featured on the Corporation for National and Community Service website. Now, the program is in its third year with 15 "Skilleteers" and more than $2,000 in donations, mostly from local businesses.
The goal behind Young Skillet
The Gemkows envision a healthy future for First Ward-area children, primarily because families in this area tend to belong to a lower socioeconomic bracket than other areas in the city.
The First Ward includes Douglass Park, a hub for a lot of children in the area. The nearest place from the park to buy food is a Breaktime gas station, which offers packaged sandwiches and 12-ounce bottles of fruit juice. But more of the offerings there are processed foods — chips, soda, jerky.
In Columbia, activists are making strides toward a better solution. The PedNet Coalition's Unite for Healthy Neighborhoods initiative seeks to distribute $400,000 to combat childhood obesity in Columbia.
At an initiative meeting May 27, Myke and his summer intern, Saxon Brown, met with other community leaders including Centro Latino, Urban Empowerment Ministries and the Community Garden Coalition to take action in improving the community's safety and health. Myke spoke excitedly about the possibility of a fruit and vegetable stand at Douglass Park.
"We need to bring it to the people," he told Brown.
Education is another part of the solution. Young Skillet helps to combat an overall disconnection with the nutritional cycle.
"I thought that was overdone in the media — surely everyone has a grasp on what goes on with their food," Horn said. "But a lot of kids couldn't think of what went into their pasta."
Dan said they seek to "de-mystify the kitchen" by teaching kids how to make basic things, such as hard-boiled eggs, bread and crackers. Horn once brought in a pasta maker.
Myke has seen the effect this education has on the campers. He once saw a Young Skillet participant watch a woman pour a lemon powder mix into a pitcher of water.
"That's not lemonade," the 6-year-old told the woman.
Myke considers that an empowering moment — the girl could address an adult critically because she understood how the process worked. To him, that's more meaningful than food issues.
"The most important part for a lot of these kids is when they dedicate themselves to something and they feel a great deal of success. That's what builds the foundation for success for the rest of your life," Myke said. "It's way more than just health and nutrition — it's mental health. It's how you grow in your body and interact with the planet."
Dan said it's more than teaching the kids what's healthy, though that usually ends up happening anyway.
"We didn't set out to address this need," Myke said. "On a fundamental level, it's fun. It addresses the issues through the back door."
And if it's fun, he said, "You don't have to deal with that aspect of ramming 'eating healthy' down peoples' throats."
A day at camp
The last step on the recipes for orange juice, lemonade and fruit salad? ENJOY!
The kids took the direction to heart.
"I'm making butter for the fun of it," said Laianna Williams, 11, as she jumped up and down shaking a canning jar filled with buttermilk during camp on July 21. "I'm making it fun!"
The campers spend part of their time in the Club Room of the Hy-Vee at 405 E. Nifong Blvd. They moved to the Club Room from YouZeum's kitchen, which they had used in past years. The group uses the space for free. Myke said they couldn't have camp without that.
When they're in the kitchen, they move from station to station, doing a variety of tasks such as making orange juice, rolling out dough for crackers or cutting up apples and bananas for fruit salad. Other days, the kids go on field trips to pick blackberries or visit farms.
While Myke teaches and supervises, Dan trains the kids to use film equipment, which allows them to document the program. Although some might not be as excited about cooking, they are able to learn useful technical skills. Myke said most of the kids' one-on-one time is with Dan.
"There was a kid who said he wanted to be a news photographer, from the First Ward, and he was really naturally good at it," Dan said.
Dan also does the final production and said he'd love to someday teach video editing if the resources were available.
"What Dan brings to the table is that he has a deep reservoir of patience for the kids," Myke said. "He has a real peaceful, hands-on way of working with them."
Dan and Myke stress that the campers are the ones really running the show.
"Really by the second day, we turn it over to them," Myke said. "They are really smart, capable, interested kids."
Laianna responded to the freedom with creativity when she and her friend Janylah Thomas, 11, did a bread-making demonstration in a past camp session.
"I splashed flour all over her face, just for the drama," Laianna said. "It looked like we were professional chefs."
Dan said this type of creativity is common at Young Skillet. On July 21, Janylah created fruit kabobs by placing melon balls and fruit salad from separate stations onto toothpicks. She offered her creation to everyone within sight.
What they take home
When the kids leave Young Skillet, some return home to families who might not be able to afford fresh produce.
Martha Williams, Laianna's grandmother, said she'd love to buy more organic food but can't afford to do so. Still, the campers find ways to use what they learn outside Young Skillet.
"It's not necessarily that I want them to make their own juice every day, but I do want them to attain the critical thinking skills to understand and see the food system," Myke said.
Williams said Laianna likes to get into the kitchen and cook at home. She does most of it on her own once she has learned a recipe. She has been making her grandmother breakfast recently while she has been sick.
"Of course I'd tell her all the time, you make sure you wash your hands, make sure you clean up your mess all along, and she knew how to do that," Williams said.
She said she thinks Young Skillet is a wonderful program. Myke's presence seems to have a lot to do with it, she noticed when picking up her granddaughter.
"They seem to respect him," she said, "and it was organized."
Brown said Myke has a different way of dealing with kids — he really gets to the heart of problems. He gives them the tools they need to succeed in a variety of situations, whether that's washing dishes or making quiche.
Myke can be firm with the kids, but he doesn't shy from offering praise when it's well deserved.
After a few rounds of "Show me you are ready" on July 21, Myke talked to the kids before lunch.
"We don't ask just anyone to come to Young Skillet," he said. "We ask you because you are smart, capable and ready to be leaders."