St. Michael students put their people skills to work

“My name is Jazmin. May I take your drink order?” the teenage girl asked a table of four at the spring pop-up lunch event held March 28 at St. Michael Special School.

Jazmin Pettigrew was one of St. Michael’s high school students to participate in the event, offering attendees the choice of food they had prepared: steamed vegetable dumplings with broccoli and a furikake rice ball; kofta kebabs with pita, hummus and salad; or corned beef and cabbage with red potatoes and Irish soda bread.

St. Michael’s culinary arts teacher Tim Laurence coordinated the fourth pop-up the school has held in the last two years. During these events, approximately 75 students have had the opportunity to build on skills they have learned, as evidenced by Tess Landry serving vegetable curry soup to lunch customers. She also shared with diners her expertise because she had had a chance to taste-test a student-made kebab.

“It’s good,” Tess, 18, who had been a server and hostess at past pop-ups, said about the kebab. I like the parsley.” 

Laurence explained how the first pop-up, which was a brunch, was the students’ entrée into learning the positions needed in a restaurant. That first menu had one item, and only six tables were available for seating. This required basic service from students, he said. 
By contrast, the March 28 event offered three menu choices, and there were eight tables. The upgrading necessitated students to be table captains, hostesses, cashiers, line cooks and servers who had insight to the menu.
“We’re improving from basic service with no choice to a menu where you can choose more than basic American food,” Laurence said.  “A lot of students get to participate in this, and they are building confidence over time. Their skills are getting better.”
Attendees like the Eagan family – mom Karen and daughters Katie and Meagan Blouin – were delighted with the pop-up experience. Katie said her sister Molly, 19, has attended St. Michael since 2006.

“I think it gives Molly a lot of pride to say, ‘Look at what I can do,’” Katie Eagan said. “I think this shows how she can accomplish things on her own. … It also helps with learning interaction skills, so one day, they can work in the community and put their skills to use.” 

Volunteers make it possible

Laurence said regular volunteers such as those from Sysco, make events such as the pop-up possible. Sysco has donated the food for the pop-up, and students cook it with the helping hands of Sysco volunteers. A total of 25 Sysco volunteers worked the recent pop-up lunch over five days.
“Most of these volunteers have been in the restaurant business, so it’s a natural progression for us to do this,” said Ferd Lorio, a St. Michael’s board member and Sysco regional sales manager. He said Laurence proposed the pop up and gave him a wish list of food that Sysco could donate. 
Lorio said his daughter, Colleen, now 34, was a former student at St. Michael before the improved culinary arts program was in place. She works at Reginelli’s and had worked for 10 years at Langenstein’s. He sees how what St. Michael students are learning today will benefit them as they become independent adults.
“They need this exposure to the real world,” he said.
The multi-cultural menu, which Lorio considered their most ambitious thus far, was inspired by the study of world history across all curriculum high schoolers are learning at St. Michael.

“What I am doing here mirrors what they are doing in art and social studies,” Laurence said. 

Experience leads to hiring

Students who have graduated from the vocational training program and are now at St. Michael’s Joy Center also volunteered at the event.
“They asked me to do this,” said Elizabeth McKeon, 49, a greeter and cashier at the lunch. She has attended St. Michael since age 16, and said she’s “good with numbers.”

Principal Tish Sauerhoff was proud of the students and the event because it demonstrates their growth in a strong Catholic environment to be all they can academically, socially and physically.
“It’s wonderful for the families to come in and see what they are learning and gives the students a chance to showcase what they have learned in an authentic way … handling the demands of a restaurant in the real world,” she said. 
Laurence said the goal of the event is to demonstrate St. Michael students’ ability to work in the service industry. He is looking for more business partners to help students gain further independence.
“The next big step is to get them hired by restaurants who recognize their ability to work,” Laurence said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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