- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

ALAIEDON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) - Kelsey Parsons had taken a pass on some extra college money, but ended up richer that she could have imagined.

The Dansville High School senior opted not to join the culinary team at the Capital Area Career Center in an upcoming state-level competition. Instead, she formed her own team coached the team to a fourth-place finish.

And she did it with three special needs students - one has cerebral palsy; two have autism and neither had cooked before. It was a high-pressure event, the state’s most talented teens spend months practicing the same menu item just to get it right on that one day.

Parsons noticed the looks they were getting.

“When we walked in people were like, ‘That’s an insult to this program,’” Parsons told the Lansing State Journal ( https://on.lsj.com/1G0Au3U ). “They came through, and I said, ‘I just proved all of you people wrong.’”

Her team not only finished fourth, but the students received a standing ovation. Each member of the team, including Parsons, earned $2,500. The career center’s actual team, for which 20 culinary students had to try out, finished just ahead of them in third place.

Parsons always loved to bake, and was in her second and final year at the career center’s culinary program. It’s a two-year certification program, called ProStart, the center runs through the Michigan Restaurant Association.

There’s a statewide ProStart competition, with the winning team going on to compete at the national level.

After talking to her instructor, Corbett Day, Parsons decided to create her own team of special needs students. The event was March 22-23 at the Crowne Plaza Lansing West.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Parsons would have made the career center team and had a shot at a state title, Day said.

“It’s not easy to say no to something you love,” she said.

Parsons put together a group that consisted of Erayna Greenwood, an Everett High School junior with cerebral palsy, and Sara Brooks and Jordan Cooper, who have autism. Greenwood is in the career center’s culinary program. Brooks and Cooper are in the school-to-work program.

“I was their mentor and coach,” Parsons said. “Instead of taking the four best chefs in the classroom I wanted to take three students and make them the best.”

Another culinary student was given the fourth spot. That was Kelsea Wulff, a Leslie High School senior.

Training her team to cook an elaborate meal - including appetizer and dessert - on a small table in under an hour was only the beginning of her challenge. Parsons had to work within the thought and work processes of each student, and they could be markedly different. Her students also had to learn to deal with judges, crowds and traveling, all of which would be new to them.

There are a lot of judges at the competition. Hovering judges who watch students cut the food and keep things clean. Unseen judges taste the food in a back room. Teams have an hour to complete a meal. Staggered start times mean a new team starts up every 15 minutes. The event lasts all day.

Nothing was done to promote the team as being different than any other. They didn’t want special treatment.

Still, there were the looks.

“I knew going in that other schools were going to look at us saying that were mocking the competition,” Day said.

The team held on, and one judge remarked the students were leading at the halfway point. Still, the fourth-place finish, out of 17 teams, impressed everyone.

“I love it,” Greenwood said of being part of it all. “It was really hard in the beginning but we made it work.”

Nic Bond, who has Brooks and Cooper as students in the school to work program, said their showing “surpassed even my greatest, wildest expectation.”

“They’re fantastic students,” he said of Brooks and Cooper. “They’re definitely two of the types that are willing to, and want to try, something new and just needed the chance to be able to do it.

“And we saw the results.”

Today, Parsons, who had planned to study sports nutrition, now plans to teach culinary arts to special-needs students, maybe even one day at the career center.

She plans to attend Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., a school with a two-year culinary program. After that, she plans to study education.

Just recently, the Michigan Restaurant Association presented Parsons with its first Student Leadership and Innovative Award. It’s going to be given annually.

Parsons, though, says she learned much more from the experience than she taught.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘Look at what you taught them,’” she said, “and I was, ‘Are you kidding me? Imagine what they taught me.’

“It was for them. All of it. Completely for them.”

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