Taylor Baggerly has a present. It’s a photo he took just this morning, of something he’d never done before. He wants to show his long-time teacher Carla Edwards.
“For me?” Carla says, diverting her eyes from the pot of boiling water and pan of frying chicken to the smart phone held high like a trophy.
“I made my own breakfast today,” Taylor says. “All on my own.”
For many, that’s monotony incarnate: breakfast on a Tuesday morning. But for Taylor and others like him, it’s a milestone. It’s uncharted waters. It’s his white whale.
Because to some Spokane minds in need of special education after high school, cooking is a vital skill not yet learned.
Not for long. Right here and now, Taylor is doing it. He’s cooking chicken. He’s stirring the sauce. Soon, he’ll offer it to dozens of classmates and eat right alongside them.
“I like to cook my own meals,” Taylor says proudly before digging into his plate of chicken alfredo and garlic bread. “I’m kind of a master.”
All in a day’s work at Spokane Community College’s People Accessing Careers and Education (PACE) Services cooking class.
Take a long, studious walk through the halls of the historic Lodge building on the south end of Spokane Falls Community College’s campus and what you see might overwhelm you.
Overlooking the Spokane River, the classrooms are beaming with students of all ages. Happy and cheerful, learning math or science or how to cook or dance. Anything, really, that will help prepare for them employment, independent living and whatever comes next in life for them.
Since the mid 1980s, PACE has been offered by the Community Colleges of Spokane in one form or another. It began as part of the shuttered Institute for Extended Learning and is now administered by Spokane Community College, though the classes themselves are taught on SFCC’s campus.
In a nutshell, PACE serves individuals with cognitive or mental health disabilities.
It’s a vital program offered to some of Spokane’s most vulnerable. Some students are young, fresh out of high schools, while others are much older, returning to the program after a several-year hiatus to learn a skill or brush up on a subject.
Jordan Gibson has been a PACE student since 2015. He comes back year after year because of the connection he’s made with his teachers. And his fellow students.
“I wanted to learn to cook on my own,” he says. “And to cook for family and friends.”
Each summer, PACE also offers a Pre-Employment Transition Services program for students attending contracted area high schools, called the Summer Academy. This program is offered to the community in partnership between SCC and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation within the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Topics typically include workplace readiness and work-based learning experiences.
Classes are face-to-face and run for about two weeks. Then, it’s on to a four- to six-week paid internship.
Students Courtney Luther and Destiny Egleston, both 19, attended high schools in the area before enrolling in the Summer Academy through SCC.
For several months, the two could be seen in the aisles of the My Fresh Basket grocery store in Kendall Yards, stocking the shelves and helping direct adrift shoppers in need of help.
And – occasionally – goofing around, as close friends ought to do.
“Sometimes we get distracted,” admits Destiny, who enjoys eating donuts on her breaks.
“You distract me!” Courtney says innocently.
The two teens – in addition to many more at jobs throughout Spokane – are overseen by Denise Smith, who joined PACE just two months ago.
She comes from a background in disability services. And like many others who devote their lives to helping others succeed, she does so because she loves it.
“I grew up in with a pretty rough childhood,” Denise says. “I just never really had people there for me. I wanted to be that for someone else.”
That’s exactly the same outlook Carla Edwards – the instructor who teaches cooking in the mornings – brings each day.
If you met her in her element, you’d assume she’s a superhero. Or just very tired. Before the sun rises, she can be seen roaming the halls of a grocery store, buying ingredients for a lesson a few hours away. She didn’t have time to shop the night before, you see, because she was up late answering student emails.
Even a task as simple as submitting an assignment via a web portal can be a monumental undertaking. Most people come into academia with a working understanding of the internet. Or even a computer. Many of Carla’s students have neither.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Academia was hit hard, but nothing could compare to the impact quarantining and social distancing had on the PACE population.
“It was very hard spring,” Carla says. “It was very hard as a teacher to teach online and in person at the same time. It was just more effort. It was totally doable, but it was definitely more effort.”
And at PACE, effort comes in spades. After teaching cooking classes this summer at SFCC, Carla would then drive across Spokane to SCC, where she’d set up for the Summer Academy.
Lessons can vary, but on a hot and sticky Wednesday, her group of a few dozen students are learning about each other. What they like, what they hate, what they can and cannot do. What they would never do and what they love to do.
They write it all down and then as a group, guess who wrote what. Some of them are very good at it. It’s clear they didn’t need a prompt to get to know one another.
And that’s the point of PACE: on paper, it prepares you for the real world. But in practice, you were already ready for it. You just needed a little encouragement.
“A lot of students have had negative experiences,” Carla says. “A lot of it is just building up their confidence. They’ve heard ‘no’ so much in their life. I’m just giving them ‘yes.’”