COLUMBIA — Mark Ohrenberg has made it his goal to help people with disabilities the way others have helped him throughout his life.
Cooks in the Kitchen aims to make adults with disabilities feel more comfortable being in a kitchen. Participants learn basic cooking skills, such as how to use an oven or knife, as well as simple, healthy recipes they can take home to try on their own.
"We want to focus on foods that show them there’s more than what you can make in the microwave," Ohrenberg said.
Ohrenberg, who has muscular dystrophy, is a community services youth advocate at Services for Independent Living, and cooking techniques are among just a few of the skills he had to learn to make living on his own realistic. He thinks they are a crucial part of independent living and give people with disabilities confidence.
"I don’t go around the stove much because I’m afraid of the hot surface," Courtney Nelson, 23, said. She has cerebral palsy and uses a walker or canes to aid her mobility. "This has definitely helped manage that."
The participants worked in two small groups to make a variety of foods, including meatloaf, potato and corn casseroles, fruit salad and the group favorite, "dirt pudding" — pudding with Cool Whip, Oreos and other ingredients mashed into it.
Working as a group helps the participants, allowing them to build friendships and social skills, Ohrenberg said.
"I get bored at home," said Dana Heavin, 35, who has spina bifida, a spinal cord disorder. "I like to be around people, and I’ve made friends here."
The class isn’t only for people with disabilities, Ohrenberg said, though there is a focus on that. He wants to encourage more people in the community to volunteer and participate.
Dione Parrish, a volunteer at Services for Independent Living, decided to help because she has a son with autism. Working with these adults helps her understand what is around the corner for him, she said.
"I like Mark’s inclusion model of having people with disabilities be a part of the community and interact with others who don’t," she said.
Cooks in the Kitchen is free, and the number of participants varies from week to week. The program is offered in collaboration with Boone County Family Resources and the Public Health and Human Services Department
The program runs only when MU is in session, Ohrenberg said, as he couldn’t manage the program without the help of students working through MU Service Learning. He likes giving students the opportunity to work with people who have disabilities.
"I had to learn to be patient and encouraging," Andrea Gebhardt, 22, said. "The best part is the look in their eyes when you tell them how well they are doing."
The program benefits all that are involved. Ohrenberg feels most accomplished when he sees participants take home the skills they have learned and apply them in their own lives.
Michael Evans, 23, a participant with optic nerve hypoplasia, found the Thanksgiving-themed week particularly helpful and interesting; it’s a meal he hopes to make on his own after some practice.
"I might want to make Thanksgiving dinner for my family one day," Evans said. "Now I know how to do that."
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