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Skills for those who need them most

Photo of Alexis Higgins with students at Camp Scudder.
Alexis Higgins with students at Camp Scudder.
Photo Reprinted Courtesy of Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Alexis Higgins teaches culinary arts for Mission College. But not many people on campus know her. That’s because her "classroom" is located at Camp Scudder, a probation facility in Saugus, where Higgins teaches the finer points of the gourmet arts to youthful offenders.

Catering director Arturo Luna has a similar assignment. He teaches culinary arts to juveniles convicted of crimes who are being held at Camp Holton in Lake View Terrace. Not far away at Phoenix House (also in Lake View Terrace), at-risk youth receive lessons in food production and sanitation and safety from instructors Robert Baradaran and Dr. Eloise Cantrell.

Students who take the classes earn credits through Mission College. It began as a pilot program in 1996 as Mission College’s effort to help at-risk youth. Since 1998, nearly 750 juvenile detainees at camps Scudder, Holton, Miller, Malibu and Phoenix House have received the college credits. It’s believed that some have gone on to take culinary classes on the campus after being released, although no specific figures are available.

"I usually lose touch with most of my students after they’re released, but the camp officials tell me many of them have gone on to find jobs in the food industry," said Higgins. Cantrell said one student who started at Phoenix House went on to win a scholarship to attend the Culinary Arts Institute in Santa Monica.

A certified executive chef, Higgins has been teaching the camp classes for four years. Luna is in his first semester. Both agree, the work is challenging. Higgins said her 15- to 18-year-old students are incarcerated for everything from theft to drive-by shootings. Luna said some of his students can’t read, and several who kept disrupting the class had to be dismissed.

"Now I’ve got a core group of about 15 students and they’re really into it," he said.

The teaching conditions, meantime, are not perfect. Higgins said her students, many of them raised in low economic circumstances, are unfamiliar with common vegetables such as broccoli. The right ingredients often are not available for certain dishes, but students learn to improvise, she said. At Camp Holton, flame was not available until late in the semester, Luna said.

Both instructors agree the rewards outweigh the challenges. As Higgins puts it, a lot more is involved than just teaching the students a few culinary skills.

"You’re giving these students life skills and helping them to become respectable adults with a real future," she said.

That thought is echoed by Luna in describing a 16-year-old student of his who is about to be released from his third camp stint. Luna said the teenager surprised him recently.

"He told me, ‘I’m not coming back again.’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘Cause now I have a skill.’ "

Alexis Higgins and her work at Camp Scudder were featured in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Read the article

– BY EDUARDO PARDO