MAC’S SMALL GRANTS PROGRAM IN ACTION!
In Karen's words, a glimpse into AISI's kitchen . . .
When our family gets together with our closest friends, we tend to hang out in the kitchen. Parking ourselves at the counter, we slice vegetables or cheese, nibble a bit of this, have a sip of that, and time flies. There are times we haven’t left the kitchen all evening — that feeling of warmth with friends and food was right where we wanted to be.
Hanging out in the kitchen at AISI with Tazo, Irakli, Nika, Dato, Ali, and Nino as they prepared lunch was just like that. Only, they were the friends, and we got to be spectators witnessing the fun.
Come on in. The room is well lit, cheery, everyone has a task. One is grating tomatoes for sauce, another washing lettuce at the sink; one is cracking eggs, another slicing onions. They are quiet at first, as our being there has undoubtedly interrupted their warmth and safety. We notice they have big bright grins as they joke with each other, but when I ask a question, hoping for a look and one of those smiles, I get a forced frown. Nika’s trying to play grumpy, but that won’t last. They know what to do in this space; they need little instruction from Natia, their supervisor. We stand around, watching, beginning to ask questions.
I say something to Nino, who shows me the badge on a lanyard she wears around her neck: “Assistant.” A big smile sneaks out. We sit down next to her as she grates tomatoes for sauce. I ask what she’s making for lunch.
“Chizhipizhi,” she says.
“Chizhi . . what?” I laugh. What is that word? Everyone laughs now as I try, repeatedly, to pronounce this dish they are preparing. I come to find out it’s the snazziest name ever for something in the family of an open-faced egg and tomato sandwich. Chizhipizhi.
Nino focuses on grating the tomatoes as her supervisor, Natia, tells us more. Nino, she says, walks to AISI every day from her home nearby. Nino and the rest of the group plan the meals they want to eat, make grocery lists, shop for the food, and prepare the food together. They eat the meals they’ve made, and, if they have extra, they share with others at the center. The others like when they do—especially chizhipizhi.
“In their families, it’s common that they are not allowed to do these things, because [their parents] are overprotective, not because they are not able,” explained Natia. And, though they have special needs related to their diagnoses of epilepsy, cerebral palsy, or intellectual disability; they are clearly capable and eager to do this work. Cucumbers are peeled; garlic is chopped. “Now I know how to fry an egg, make potatoes, cut an onion,” reported Dato, who told us he has enjoyed the cooking classes so much he would like to study cooking further, maybe get a job in a restaurant someday. “I was so impressed with the Caesar salad I made the other day that I took pictures of it and showed it to girls I met,” boasted Dato. Temo and I encouraged him — indeed, one just might find a way to a woman’s heart through food.
Dato, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, arrived a little later, after the cooking was underway. Once he sat down, though, the group's energy level almost immediately picked up. More smiles, more laughs. More time, more questions. Soon we were hearing about poetry, music, acting, and, “Do you know Tazo is an artist?” Before we knew it, we were heading down the hall to find a piano, so Nika could sing us a song.
Though the cooking classes have only been on since October, it is obvious they have a good thing going. We witnessed firsthand the skills these individuals have learned and heard stories of how these skills are leading to increased independence, self confidence, and ideas for the future. Plans are in the works to invite parents in for a meal prepared by their children. Imagine the wonder and pride in that room as they, too, see what this group can do.
And, being with one another, laughing and telling stories as they mix cornmeal and stir sauce, seems like the best of classroom environments — like the safety and warmth of a friend’s kitchen. Someday I hope to stop back by that kitchen at AISI; to enter again that bright, warm place; to join the friends in their work and fun; and, this time, I want to stay long enough to taste the chizhipizhi.