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Workshop teaches cooking for the visually impaired

SYCAMORE – For the first time in her life, Kayla Craig is learning to cook.

In the past, the Genoa-Kingston High School senior had her food prepared for her by a chef. The closest she came to cooking was warming up meals in a microwave.

But with the help of a cooking workshop for the visually impaired at Sycamore High School, she’s learning to make pasta and salads on her own.

“I like it so far,” Craig said. “And it’s teaching me for when I’m on my own, because eventually I’ll need to get my own apartment and learn how to cook.”

The workshop, which began Monday and ends today, is meant to do more than help students with visual impairments learn how to shop for food and cook, said Diane Tyrrell, coordinator of the workshop and a Sycamore School District 427 board member.

“It’s more about making the adaptation for individual needs so they can be on a level playing field with others,” Tyrrell said.

Tyrrell is a teacher for the Northwestern Illinois Association, a special education co-op that serves more than 70 school districts. She works with children with vision problems and wanted to create a workshop that would help them learn life skills outside the classroom.

“If you have low vision or difficulty reading, it’s going to take more time to process and learn those skills,” Tyrrell said.

With the help of District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman, Tyrrell pursued and received a grant from 3M, a manufacturing company.

Fifteen area high school students and student volunteers enrolled in the workshop. On Monday, they all headed to Hy-Vee in Sycamore to go grocery shopping. Hy-Vee’s nutritionist Lisa Brandt also taught the students about healthy food choices.

Students were given iPod Touches programmed with applications to help them identify the cost of food items and instruct them on cooking. They were able to keep the devices.

“The devices they got in the workshop will help them be all the more independent and really fluent,” Tyrrell said.

Sydney Milner, a Sycamore High School senior, said she liked shopping for food through the workshop. Milner, who has low vision and is hard of hearing, attended with her interpreter Jan Loomer from the Northwestern Illinois Association.

“I learned how to cut with a knife and how to keep our kitchen clean,” Milner said.

Helping the students learn how to cook was Goldie Shaw of Low Vision Chef, a company she created with her husband. Shaw has vision problems but did not let that stop her from pursuing a career as a chef, Tyrrell said.

As her first cooking workshop wraps up, Tyrrell is considering future workshops for students with other disabilities.

“Goldie called me last night and said ‘I don’t want these guys to lose their skills,’” Tyrrell said Thursday. “ 'I want them to keep being independent and live on their own.’”

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