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Students find that where there’s a will, there’s a culinary WAY

Frank Buonamici listens to hip-hop when he needs to relax in the kitchen.

The culinary student with boundless energy leads the class of special-needs students at Baker Victory Services who daily learn skills that could put them on track for an independent life. At age 20, Buonamici has built a reputation for his creative cookery.

“It’s funny,” said Jillian E. Hanley, a chef mentor in the Work Appreciation for Youth Program, or WAY. “A lot of the students do have (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and they concentrate more in this kitchen. The way Frank comes up with his creations is really an expression of himself. His Hot Chocolate Cookie is to die for.”

The WAY program, established in 2001, gives at-risk youth, young adults with developmental disabilities and those with mental health concerns the chance to learn job skills.

Today, 170 students are involved in the work-based learning program. WAY students have many tracks to choose from, including horticulture, early childhood care and dental hygiene.

Last June, when Bank of America and Merrill Lynch donated $11,000 to the program, the master kitchen received a much needed face-lift. More than 50 students ages 15 to 20 learn culinary skills in the freshly renovated kitchen located at 790 Ridge Road, the former location of Our Lady of Victory Infant Home. The infant home was opened in 1906 by Father Nelson Baker to house and care for abandoned babies and their young mothers.

Today’s students require individualized education and are referred from other Baker Victory Services programs, local school districts, including Frontier Central, and the Erie County juvenile-justice system, said Sharon Cavanaugh, program director for WAY.

“They are working toward the career development and occupational studies credential,” Cavanaugh said. “It shows their competency in various areas. LunchWAY students achieve competency in knife-handling, short-order cooking, customer relations, making change. We are marketing the kitchen and lunch cafe to other school districts, including Buffalo Public Schools. We can contract with the students who need work-based training.”

The student cooks don’t spend all their time in the kitchen. They work at the sandwich counter, stock the salad bar, fill customer orders. All work at a coffee bistro and LunchWAY, the cafe, both open to the public.

The LunchWAY Cafe is open to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the program recently sprouted a catering service.

The students’ mentor, Hanley, 24, loves teaching “her kids,” many of whom need to be shown step by step more than once how to do almost everything.

“They are a lot of fun, but they really need an outlet,” Hanley said. “That is the kitchen, where they learn to cook. It’s their therapy.”

Hanley, who also teaches culinary and baking classes at night, is a trained baker.

When Tyler Thagard, 16, an 11th-grader from Amherst, first started the program, Hanley said, he barely spoke to her.

“Now, we have established a relationship so when he first comes in, I ask how he is feeling, whether he has had a good week or a bad week, and how I can help get him through this day.”

On Thursday, Sean Herod, of Depew, worked at the cash register. In a quiet moment, he acknowledged that he liked the sound that it made.

Building a cheese-on-sourdough for the grill was Kate Williams, 17, of Lockport. When she first started the program, she said, she could not have made the sandwich.

At least one chef in training charted a plan for his future.

“My plan after I graduate this year is to work at Ted’s Hot Dogs,” Buonamici said. “I live on Grand Island, and we have a (Theodore’s Red Hots) on the island, and it has charcoal grills. I was thinking of working there.”

After he perfects his Nutty Chicken Fruit Salad.