(Editor's note: Students' last names are withheld for privacy.)
Robert is an 18-year-old with a clear career path, despite a rocky adolescence: "My number-one goal is to open my own restaurant," he said.
He took a step in that direction this month by beginning culinary studies at Schenectady County Community College. He also finished his high school education at LaSalle School in Albany, a residential treatment center for troubled teenage boys where he has lived for almost three years.
Robert credits his newfound purpose to his participation in LaSalle's after-school culinary skills-building class. Keith Smith, the dining services director at a Daughters of Sarah Senior Community residence in Albany, has volunteered his time instructing the group of up to eight boys at the school once a week for three years.
They meet for a few hours in a classroom with kitchen equipment, spending time on study - Mr. Smith even sneaks in bits of chemistry - as well as meal preparation. They master knife skills, food storage, kitchen sanitation, sautéing and grilling, dishwashing and other "basic stuff to make a $5 dinner into $15," Robert explained.
"It just opened my horizon and showed me there's a whole lot else out there to strive for," he told The Evangelist. "It shows me that there's a family everywhere you go, even in the kitchen. They all come together as one. They help each other."
Robert said Mr. Smith, whom the students affectionately call Chef, "treats you like his own. He's an excellent guy and I love him. He showed me that cooking is something I want to do for the rest of my life."
Mr. Smith's involvement began when his food service company tasked him with finding a volunteer opportunity. In the past, he'd fulfilled this with Boy Scout seminars and classes for senior citizens. This time, Joan Healey, CEO of the Daughters of Sarah and a LaSalle School trustee, suggested a cooking seminar series at LaSalle.
Mr. Smith admitted that he'd harbored preconceived notions about the students. "I always thought of LaSalle as the 'bad boy' school in town," he recalled.
Soon, however, "I found out how absolutely normal they are" and that "they soak up everything I teach them," said the parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Delmar. He decided "it would be selling them short and selling me short not to do more with it."
A permanent partnership began and, three years later, shows no signs of stopping. Mr. Smith's company recently gave him an award for his efforts and $6,000, which he gave to the school to grow the program.
The students have run hors d'oeuvres stations for hundreds of guests at two open houses for the school and at a Daughters of Sarah fundraiser at the New York State Museum in Albany.
The events - where the boys have prepared such dishes as Jamaican jerk chicken, mini Reuben sandwiches and horseradish-stuffed shrimp wrapped in bacon - have elicited rave reviews from diners. This sort of recognition of their work is exactly what LaSalle seeks for its students, said Bill Wolff, executive director of the school.
"We try to help kids understand that they can achieve things, that they can do more than they thought they could otherwise," Mr. Wolff said. "The kids get a chance to see themselves with different futures."
The cooking class, along with activities like student senate and music education, give the students options.
That happened for Brandon, 18, a LaSalle resident for eight months. "When I came here," he told The Evangelist, "I didn't realize who I was at all."
He took up piano in music class and joined Mr. Smith's class. Now a senior, he aims to enter the Culinary Institute of America after he finishes high school.
"I came to realize this is what I like to do," Brandon said. "I just enjoy making [food], seeing people's faces after they enjoy it. When I'm cooking, I don't think about anything but what I'm doing."
His classmate, C.J., 17, has different career aspirations, but agreed that cooking takes his mind off other things.
"It's like an outlet from being here," he said of the group. "It's fun and it gives you a chance to be creative. It motivates you and gives you almost like time away from what your situation might be."
"The whole LaSalle in general," C.J. continued, "kind of turned my head around and made me realize there are other things to do than be a menace."
Cooking students often take their knowledge home when they visit family; C.J. recently made his family chicken marsala, a class favorite.
"Once you give them a little bit of direction, they'll run with it," Mr. Smith said. "I think what I'm doing more than anything else is giving them a sort of kick-start. They just need the tools. And we have such a good time."
He says the students, who are accompanied with a single aide instead of the usual swarm during the day, never misbehave and always appear engaged. Some confide about the circumstances that brought them to LaSalle School, and Mr. Smith sees cooking as a way to lift that weight off their shoulders.
"The toughest kids are probably the biggest marshmallows," he said. "That's the satisfaction that I get out of it. I give these kids an escape from the daily routine.
"I'm just a guy," Mr. Smith continued. "But my impact is letting them know they can be self-sufficient in a kitchen, being able to show their skills to other people. It sure increases their self-worth, being able to have their egos stroked after they've been turned down so much in their lives. What I'm doing is just sort of adding on to what [LaSalle] already does."