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Culinary training at Rising Stars offers hope -- and jobs -- to special needs students

Detroit Free Press - 11/24/2018

Nov. 24--For Mark and Deb Prentiss, May 2012 was like something out of Dickens. That is, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

On May 11, Mark's mother succumbed to the lung cancer she'd been battling for years. A week later, the Prentisses were awarded the charter to start a school in Center Line for special needs kids that Mark had been dreaming of for years. Ten days after that, their son Kyle committed suicide. Three months later, their youngest son Willie started drug rehab.

"He's been clean for six years," Mark said on a recent Monday as he knocked on the wooden table in the couple's office, which is tucked into a back corner of the old elementary school where they now run Rising Stars Academy and its adjacent programs.

"This is what I was meant to do," Mark continued. "It ties into the mission. My son is in recovery and we gave him a second chance. But he deserved a second chance. And then being awarded the grant, it was kind of like, you know what? This is what we're supposed to do."

"It became our focus," Deb echoed. "We eat, sleep, and drink this 24/7."

The Prentisses -- Mark was a chef in high-volume restaurants and Deb was an educator -- opened Rising Stars Academy in the fall of 2013 as a post-secondary charter school focusing on teaching culinary skills to special needs students between the ages of 18 and 26 from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties.

But the operation has grown since those first 24 students. In addition to the 125 currently enrolled in the charter school, the facility now also includes a Medicaid-funded program called HomeHUB for students who age out of the school, as well as a nonprofit foundation that operates a student-staffed bakery, cafe and vegetable-processing operation on-site. There's also a fledgling popcorn business, a transportation service that shuttles students to and from various job sites and future plans for a bike-repair shop.

But the mission is the same for all of Rising Stars' various programs: To give people with special needs the skills and confidence necessary to lead independent lives with dignity, including holding down a job.

"Most of every task that we work on are job skills," Deb said. "Whether you're working bakery or you're working production or you're working front kitchen, you're basically working on the same job skill principles -- follow direction, finish the task, be dressed and ready for work, that kind of stuff. ... The goal is to get them employed."

And yet there's a contingent of students that the Prentisses are aware will never find employment outside Rising Stars' walls because of intense behavioral issues or lack of social skills.

"In the bald man with the chef's coat's mind," Deb said referring to her husband, "now he has to provide work experiences for them here. Hence the bakery. Hence the food production facility. He bought a popcorn business. It's in a classroom down there. He did that one Saturday morning on the way to breakfast. ... I just go with it."

Deb credits Rising Stars' growth to her husband's tireless work ethic, which is driven, at least in part, by Mark's ability to empathize with his students.

"Even though I didn't have an intellectual disability, I had a size disability," Mark said.

While attending Center Line High School in the 1970s, he weighed close to 500 pounds.

"And I was treated like them," he said of his students. "My label was the dumb, fat kid in the corner. That's how people viewed me all the time."

And that's how he says many people view his students.

"I call them all at-risk," he said. "People discount them as being unable to do anything."

And though culinary skills and farming were the focus at Rising Stars from the outset, the hands-on classwork has broadened to include skills like balancing a checkbook, writing a grocery list and learning the difference between a Phillips and a flat-head screwdriver.

There's also the aquaponics room, where salad greens are grown by students and utilized in the cafe, which is open to the public from 11:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday every week.

Before the start of the school year, Rising Stars hired Chef Brandon Zarb, formerly of the Imperial and Public House restaurants in Ferndale, to help oversee the cafe and teach students culinary skills.

"This place is so self-sustaining," Zarb said with a note of admiration in his voice. "There's no janitor that works at Rising Stars. It's 100-percent student-run. And everything is done in house. We even wash our own linen and towels. We take the lint from washing our own linen and make little fire starters out of it and sell that. Every vegetable scrap -- everything gets utilized."

In addition to the cafe, there's also an on-site vegetable processing facility, where students cut and bag hundreds of pounds of produce every week that goes to a local distributor who then sells them to restaurants in the area.

And, as with everything the Prentisses seem to touch here, there are future plans for growth -- to do more, process more and to be able to pay the students in addition to offering job training.

That's the same goal at the new on-site bakery, which is being overseen by veteran baker Mike Byrd. Byrd said the lease on his Roseville location was up and instead of schlepping his equipment to his garage, he decided to call up his old friends the Prentisses and offer them a bakery.

With the help of Rising Stars students, the bakery now churns out bread, croissants and other baked goods that are delivered by HomeHUB students to local restaurants. The public can also buy loaves at a small retail area near the school's entrance.

Up and running only since October, the bakery's output is growing quickly.

"We're going to get to a point probably within the next six months I would say to where we're actually going to hire students for the summer that we've trained," Byrd said, choking back tears. "They will actually have a job, a paying job. Taxes, the whole frickin' works."

That kind of personal gratification is another reason people like Byrd and Zarb have signed on to help.

Chef Hassan Musselmani runs the Drunken Rooster food truck during the summer and juggles a number of other food-service gigs throughout the year, but in the winter he's here as a paraprofessional teaching students culinary skills.

"This is like the coolest place to work," Musselmani said. "I've opened like 10 restaurants and done all these huge events. But we have this one low-functioning kid, TJ. I taught him to peel potatoes one day. And he peeled eight potatoes. It was the proudest moment of my whole (expletive) life, dude. It really was. You wouldn't think it's something you'd like, but it teaches you a lot of patience."

"I think that younger chefs need to understand that it's great to give back and raise money," Mark said. "But it's also great to give back by training people. It's about my kids getting the opportunity. If they can't cut it, just cut them loose. But just come in and spend 15 minutes with them and change their lives."

In just a few short months, Rising Stars has already changed the life of Nadarwin Hogan, a student who began attending this year.

"I used to be quiet," Hogan said. "But I learned that communication is key. You have to talk to anyone. You have to show that you're capable of talking and doing interactive things."

The 20-year-old Detroit resident said he once had a job at a grocery store, but his dream is to one day become a chef. Through Rising Stars, he's gaining job training experience, prepping and serving at the salad station at the GM Technical Center in Warren three days a week.

"Everyone's really friendly here," he said of Rising Stars. "It's easy to talk to people here because they're so nice. They can tell you what's right and what's wrong. And they can change you."

A handful of Rising Star students have found outside employment just this year. One works as a dishwasher and prep cook for the Detroit BBQ Company. Another works at Mike's Pizza at the Little Caesars Arena downtown.

A couple more will soon get the experience of cooking in a professional kitchen under Zarb, who is partnering with the Detroit Free Press and the Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers for a fundraiser for Rising Stars at Frame in Hazel Park on Dec. 1 and 2.

"That's the whole thing," Mark said. "We can start employing these kids. They can come to school. We can work out their SSI. All those things. Being a safe place. We know what they're doing. Parents know what they're doing. It's a good win-win situation for everybody."

Send your dining tips to Free Press Restaurant Critic Mark Kurlyandchik: 313-222-5026 or mkurlyandc@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mkurlyandchik and Instagram: curlyhandshake.

Rising Stars Academy

23855 Lawrence, Center Line

www.rising-stars-academy.org

586-806-6455

At press time, a few tickets still remained for the Rising Stars Academy fundraiser dinner at Frame. Tickets available at www.framehazelpark.com/experience/rising-stars.

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(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press

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