Chef Curtis Duffy of Grace Restaurant demonstrates cooking techniques to students in one of Y.O.U.’s programs. Photo from Youth & Opportunity United.

Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) is an Evanston agency that has provided after-school programs and services to meet the needs of young people and their families since 1971. The agency offers three hours of after-school activities three days a week throughout the school year for the community’s underserved youth in third through 12th grade.

Y.O.U. serves 1,500 children from 11 different schools in Evanston and Skokie. About 60% of the students are black, 25-30% are Latino, and 10-15% are white or Asian. Of those, 85% are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

A typical afternoon for students participating in Y.O.U. includes one hour of academic time followed by an opportunity to participate in a wide range of enrichment activities such as sports, art, dance, music, poetry, photography, theater, and cooking.

“Our enrichment activities are really the core of our program,” said Carla Smith, a social worker who joined Y.O.U. in 2014 and runs an eight-week cooking class for participants. “These activities not only provide an opportunity to expose students to something new but also allow us, the counselors, the opportunity to teach students critical life skills.”

Ms. Smith’s very popular cooking class, dubbed “The Chew,” meets once a week for eight weeks. She holds 10 sessions throughout the year. Class size is limited to eight students per session. The intimate setting is conducive to small group discussions.

“We designed The Chew to help kids learn interpersonal skills,” she said. “We work on communication and teamwork as well as building self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence.”

As an example, she said the topic for the first session this year was “teamwork.” The students were asked to make a fruit salad. They were divided into two groups. One group of four had to work on the salad together as a team, sharing a limited number of utensils and making compromises. The other four students were challenged to work individually, to problem-solve on their own and avoid becoming distracted.

After each cooking activity, the group gathers to discuss what the experience was like for them. They talk about the benefits and challenges and how they can relate this experience to things that happen at home and in school.

The cooking classes are currently taught at a variety of locations, including several churches throughout Evanston and Skokie, but they will eventually be offered in the new state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen that will be built in Y.O.U’s new 12,0000-square-foot facility at 1911-17 Church St., across the street from Evanston Township High School.

Ms. Smith is optimistic she will be able to expand her program to reach more students once the new facility is built. She also hopes to be able to allow students who have completed the class to return and participate on some level as leaders or volunteers.

“We’ve had students really thrive in this class, and we would love to be able to welcome them back.”

Ms. Smith says Y.O.U. strives to be creative with its therapy programs. “We try to meet the youth where they are – to give them the tools they need to manage stress in their lives and encourage them to have some fun, too.”

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