By teaching practical culinary and social skills, Simone Berti is preparing individuals with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities to assimilate into society and be self-sufficient.
The New Idea
Through Chefs Especiais (Special Chefs), Simone is creating a method to prepare people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities to gain and improve critical skills needed for a productive life. Chefs Especiais is a culinary institute that aims to develop students’ interest in cooking while elevating their self-esteem and self-sufficiency. By combining elements of culinary arts, inclusion, motor skills, and celebrity instructors, Simone has created a safe space for students to share their accomplishments and focus on their abilities, rather than their challenges.
Simone sees Chefs Especiais addressing an issue of citizenship rather than health. Simone recognizes that traditional efforts to prepare teachers, schools, and companies to receive people with intellectual disabilities are failing. Simone’s work also involves students’ families. Parents form a community where they can meet, exchange ideas, express concerns or questions, and celebrate the achievements of their children. Parents learn to focus on their children’s abilities and how to foster skill-building that leads to greater self-sufficiency. Chefs Especiais also involves others who are not intellectually disabled as classroom volunteers.
Simone’s students are natural multipliers as they learn a new skill, share the new skill with others, and even help teach some of the classes. Some of her students have already entered the job market in the culinary field. Further, Simone is expanding her courses to include people with physical disabilities, including the deaf, blind, and people in wheelchairs. Because her methodology is simple and accessible, Simone will share it with others to enable additional groups to start other skill-based classes for the intellectually and physically impaired. The work of Chefs Especiais has already been widely recognized in Sao Paulo and has been replicated in Portugal.
In Brazil, an estimated 300,000 people have Down syndrome. As in most countries, before it was recognized as a genetic alteration in 1959, life expectancy of a person with Down syndrome was a mere fifteen years. Today, fifty years later, the life expectancy has risen to nearly 80 years, almost equal to the average life expectancy of the general population in Brazil.
In addition to people with Down syndrome, there are an estimated 24.5 million people in Brazil that suffer from functional/intellectual limitations. Often hidden from society, their disability is treated as a health condition with few opportunities for assimilation. Those able to integrate into society, including individuals with jobs as a result of the laws passed regarding disability quotas, including Brazil’s quota law passed in 1991, still face discrimination and unequal treatment. This is mostly due to the fact that people do not understand the condition, how to treat people with Down syndrome, or what they are capable of.
With advances in science, modern medicine has been able to alleviate many of the health issues commonly associated with Down syndrome. Today, the concerns that need to be addressed are related to prejudice and misinformation, and further, understanding how to help people with Down syndrome to reach their full development. In schools, time and money is spent on preparing teachers to work with people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. Money is spent purchasing equipment for classrooms, learning centers, etc. The same resources are put into companies. In Brazil, however, there have been many instances where companies have preferred to pay a fine instead of adhere to the disability quota implemented by the government. They have found it too expensive to provide the necessary equipment and management for people with Down syndrome. Thus, what is lacking is proper education and experience for them to enter society. Rather than prepare schools and companies to receive them, there is a need to prepare people with Down syndrome to enter into society.
Further, there is no environment for people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities as well as people with physical disabilities to discover and strengthen their abilities and design a life plan. There are few places where they can feel supported, discover their capabilities and tastes, and develop their proper social, cognitive, and physical skills.
Today people with Down syndrome are now living longer, even outliving their parents. Additionally, the number of children born with Down syndrome is continuing to increase in Brazil as women have children later in their lives. For each 660 children born in Brazil, one is born with Down syndrome. Models of interaction with people with Down can no longer be guided by charity, but modeled on asset-based development, with a deep respect for their rights, desires, interests, and possibilities.
Simone started the first culinary class in 2006 and officially launched Chefs Especiais in January 2012, when she formed the institute. She mobilizes resources and a combination of specific elements to create an environment of learning and celebration for the students. Currently, Chefs Especiais has four employees and thirty-five volunteers.
Simone uses a combination of culinary arts, celebrity instructors, motor skills, and inclusion to make the classes successful. The main objectives of the institute are (i) creating the Chefs Especiais seal of quality (if the student is 100 percent able to enter the culinary market, he or she will receive this seal after training and certification) (ii) entering the labor market under supervision and on-going mentorship (iii) evaluation of skills and career guidance (iv) support for families of people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities and (v) self-management course for the students. Each culinary class has 15 to 18 students and occurs once a month. In order to take the class, students must register online through the Institute’s website and send information regarding dietary restrictions, age, etc. After registering, students are invited to join a class. Simone divides the classes by age: up to age 11, 12 to 20, and 20 and over.
An important part of Simone’s work is to invite a well-known chef to teach the class. As a marketing technique, she is able to spread the idea further as media are anxious to publicize each class. More importantly, having a well-known chef teach the class is a tool of inclusion. It demonstrates to outsiders that people with intellectual disabilities deserve equality and are capable of learning difficult tasks. Because of Simone’s empathy and persistence, she is able to build relationships with celebrity chefs. Because these chefs are role models, they are setting a trend and standard for others chefs to follow. All chefs teach the course free of charge. Once the chef is invited, Simone and the chef decide on a recipe that will require a significant amount of motor movement. For example, recipes are chosen that have ingredients students will need to measure, pour, and stir on their own.
After the students are chosen for the four-hour class, they are required to arrive early and prepare. All students wear an apron and hairnet for sanitary reasons and simulate a true working experience. Further, it equalizes the students, meaning that regardless of their economic background, they all have the same opportunity to learn. The students first learn about the history and background of the food that they will be preparing before cooking it. To improve their motor skills, students are required to complete all tasks on their own (i.e. breaking eggs, measuring flour, etc.). For some, this can be a challenge. Volunteers are available to provide help when needed but they are specifically instructed not to do anything for the students. However, the volunteers play an important role as they interact with students. Simone is rapidly expanding the volunteer base as a way to change the mindset and perspective toward individuals with intellectual disabilities.
The most important elements in Simone’s strategy are autonomy and team work. The students are learning concrete skills that will prepare them for school, jobs, and life. Simone is creating an atmosphere in which the students can focus on their assets and imagine their possibilities. At the end of each class, every student receives a certificate and all are able to celebrate their achievements. The parents and families are also encouraged to attend the class and celebrate. This serves as a way to improve family relations and also creates a network for the parents to come together, discuss challenges or opportunities, and share experiences. Students are encouraged to interact with one another. This is a crucial element of Simone’s work as every single job that they will have in the future will involve teamwork and interpersonal interaction.
Chefs Especiais is currently working with almost 200 students and is expanding quickly. Simone’s marketing strategy has been through social media and word of mouth. Families who have children with an intellectual disability are often connected to each other. The families and students are natural networkers of Simone’s work.
All financing for Chefs Especiais to date has been from in-kind donations, grants, and sponsorships. Every class is sponsored by a partner and Simone has been able to build relationships with companies and restaurants to donate all the food and equipment. She has strategically focused on companies who produce restaurant material to demonstrate to these companies the abilities of people with Down as future customers. Simone charges a small fee (15 Reais or $US7) for people who want to watch the class who aren’t family members of students. Further, the recognition of Simone’s work throughout Sao Paulo has also helped her earn grants and awards, including being elected as one of the top 10 social projects in Brazil by Editora Globo, a large Brazilian publisher owned by Globo Network. Chefs Especiais also received a Best of the Year award in June 2012 for social responsibility from the Brazilian magazine, Prazeres da Mesa.
Simone is expanding the work of Chefs Especiais to include students with physical disabilities. She has already offered several classes for students who are deaf, blind, or in wheelchairs. These classes are made possible through adaptations of kitchen equipment which helps companies identify potential future markets of equipment for special abilities. Due to the high demand in Sao Paulo, Simone is also starting a catering service as part of Chefs Especiais. Simone’s work has already expanded to Portugal and because the methodology is simple and accessible she is sharing it with others to create additional classes for people with intellectual disabilities.
As a child, Simone’s favorite television show was I Dream of Jeannie. Simone dreamed of becoming Jeannie, not to have anything she wanted, but to grant wishes and do good in the world. She imagined that she would take people off of the streets and change their lives. This desire to help others led her to be a recognized problem-solver. Even as a child, others, including adults, trusted her and would come to her for advice. Simone knew how to listen, and more importantly, she learned how to see assets and opportunities instead of problems and challenges.
In college, Simone earned two degrees in journalism and law. Instead of going directly into one of the fields, however, she started a jewelry business after having success in college selling the jewelry she had made. Simone owned two jewelry stores for several years until she decided to work as a consultant and devote more time to her family.
Simone was deeply affected by an experience that she had as a young mother. Being aware of her surroundings and of those in need, Simone noticed that one of her neighbor’s maids had a daughter with Down syndrome. Each day Simone observed this young girl walking up and down the street while her mother worked. Wanting to treat her as an equal, Simone invited the girl with Down syndrome to have cake with her only if she promised to help bake it and clean up afterwards. With a desire to do something more after her two children were older, Simone’s recollection of this experience was part of her motivation to found a cooking class for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. The first cooking class was very successful, and Simone knew that this was the beginning of a powerful project using the culinary arts to promote social inclusion and equality.