Damontez Tunstall of Baltimore wisks up a caramel icing for a cake as Kay Davis, Silver Oak Academy culinary arts director, supervises.

Written By Lisa Breslin, Photos by: Phil Grout

The culinary arts are changing lives at Silver Oak Academy, a group home in Keymar.

Delinquent youths who once stood before judges are now standing behind three-tiered peppermint cakes and gingerbread houses at catered receptions.
The once-bad boys are now bakers.

They are top chefs with confidence, thanks to a culinary program that leaves each participant poised for national certification, scholarship opportunities, and course credits at culinary arts colleges and universities.

“The ProStart culinary program gives them a sense of purpose,” said Kevin McLeod, a coach and teacher at Silver Oak. “I’ve watched them bake something and proudly say ÔI can do this.’ And that attitude branches into other aspects of their lives: I can graduate. I can finish what I start.”

In preparation for a holiday breakfast and winter graduation ceremony, students recently worked on a tablescape that included a snow-covered street lined with gingerbread houses and pine trees.

“This is relaxing. It takes me away from other stuff,” said Zayir Artis, 15, from Suitland. “I hope to get a job cooking or working in a restaurant – maybe Red Lobster.”

The tablescape was less taxing than the mountain of baked goods the students prepared days earlier, they said. The chefs made breakfast casseroles, chicken satays and peanut sauce, miniature spinach quiches, hot crab dip and cookie trays piled high with cran-raspberry bars, sugar cookies and gingerbread men.

“My mother doesn’t believe that I can make things like this, said Washington, D.C., resident Ravon Ngimbi, who made a royal icing for the gingerbread houses by blending egg whites, lemon juice and powdered sugar.

Silver Oak Academy is located a few miles beyond Uniontown at what was once Bowling Brook, a juvenile facility that was forced to close in 2007, two months after the death of a 17-year- old resident.

In 2009, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services approved a proposal by Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based company, to operate a group home (residential & school) on the old Bowling Brook campus.

Now, Silver Oak Academy welcomes as many as 48 high school boys each year to its sprawling facility that includes a 20,000-square-foot vocational training center and six dormitories.

The school’s curriculum offers a host of certifications, including OSHA, CPR and first aid and GED.

Students enrolled in the ProStart culinary program at Silver Oak learn culinary techniques, food handling rules, and safety measures as well as management skills. To earn the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement, the youths pass two national exams, demonstrate a mastery of foundational skills and work 400 mentored hours.

Silver Oak’s culinary arts teacher Kay Davis, a former cook for Westminster High School, cafeteria manager at Taneytown Elementary and a professional caterer, says that the program brought her life full-circle.

“My passion for cooking came from my mother, Virginia Wilson,” Davis said. “As her children, we were the guinea pigs for her recipes. I also cooked and catered a great deal at my church.”

“I’m fortunate the way I grew up,” Davis added. “I can’t even fathom what they have gone through – but I can give them skills, and the joy of giving back surpasses all my other work experiences.”

“The students cater all of our graduations, open houses and holiday parties,” said Catherine Gammage, Silver Oak’s principal. “They’ve catered for Union Bridge and a program at McDaniel College – their food is that good. Decked out in chef whites and hat, they are incredibly professional.”

“This program teaches them life skills that they weren’t able to learn from a parent,” Gammage added. “And with renewed sense of purpose, they are eager to show their parents what they can do.”

Davis recalls one experience that captured the rewards of the school’s ProStart culinary program: “There was a young man who was only here briefly and he really wanted to learn how to make funnel cakes so that when he got home he could make them for his little brother and sister.”

“The day he was ready to leave, we made funnel cakes. He had powdered sugar ear to ear and all over his chest. He was so happy,” said Davis. “And as he walked out, he whispered in my ear ÔMs. Davis, you know you’re changing lives here.’”