High school class gives back by cooking meals for firefighters

Posted November 9, 2016

High school students in River Falls are feeding hungry firefighters, but there’s a lot more to the story than just preparing meals.

Kayte Koehler, River Falls High School consumer science teacher, is helping students in her Connections class partner with kids who have special needs to help volunteer firefighters every Monday night by cooking them a nice meal.

“It’s a hands-on way to give back to the community,” said special education teacher Cece Gillis. The class has been cooking meals for the volunteer River Falls Fire Department for more than five years.

The students are learning to be open minded and ready for anything, said Gillis.

Preparing the meal started out of a desire to add a service learning component to the class by having the high school students work alongside children with special needs, said Gillis.

“I’ve learned how easy it is to connect with kids that have special needs,” said Jacob Craft, a high school senior. The kids understand more than the students thought they would and they want to be a part of everything, Gillis added.

“The class is always full,” said, Gillis. They have had to turn students away by having to limit the number of participants in the class.

“The kids do all of it,” said Koehler. The teachers stand back and are just in awe of what is happening, they said.

“I have been teaching for 27 years and this class has been one of the highlights,” said Gillis. It is really the small things that end up making a difference in people’s lives, she added.

“This is an amazing class,” Kohler added. “I am proud to be part of such a great community. I’m new and this was all in place before I came. The teachers before me really had it all set up.” She said the kids really are the stars of the class.

One of the hardest part of the class for the students is that they cook really good food but are not able to eat it. The fire department sends someone to pick up the food every Monday after the class has finished cooking it.

“I like making the desserts with another student. That was my favorite part,” said Megan Loney, a senior who has enjoyed the class.

The kids are getting experience cooking all different kinds of food. Sometimes they make fancier meals like chicken marsala and other times they cook easier things like sloppy joes and tater-tot hot dish, said Gillis.

To keep the costs down, the teachers, before the class, check local grocery store advertisements and decide what to make depending upon what’s on sale. That gives them more money to work with. The class has made meals like barbecue ribs and pork loins, said Gillis.

“When I got here we had the pickle and pimento loaf with potato chips,” said Scott Nelson, the River Falls fire chief. The myth that firefighters are really good cooks isn’t always accurate. The meals are budgeted and the students learn the entire process. For the same amount of money, the firefighters get a much better meal, Nelson said.

Doug Rudesill, one of the captains at the fire department, is credited with starting the program. He helped find a way to get kids involved, said Gillis.

“The biggest problem we have is when summer comes and we have to cook ourselves,” Nelson said. The fire department really misses the meals when the high school isn’t in session.

“It’s really good to know you have helped someone else out. It’s a nice feeling to give back,” Craft said.

“There are lots of opportunities to give back. You just need to look for those opportunities,” said Loney. Her advice for others thinking about getting involved is to be open minded — you never know what you might learn.