By: Kristen Becker
One of the real perks of living in Buffalo is that you are always just one or two people away from making something fantastic happen. That’s what happened when Stacey Watson, Executive Director of South Buffalo Education Center (SBEC), sat down to enjoy a recent edition of Nickel City Chef. As luck would have it, Chef JJ Richert of Torches was competing, and Watson immediately recognized the opportunity to make a difference with her students at the SBEC.
If you are unfamiliar with the center, let me give you the back of the book. Founded in 2002 by NYS Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, SBEC has more than 500 graduates, making it top in the state for its work with high-risk youth who are not in school. Watson developed the Holistic Education curriculum, which focuses on personal as well as academic growth, for out-of-school youth at risk. This curriculum stresses the importance of career paths that fit the students’ needs and strengths. On more than one occasion, Watson has invited special guests to come to the center and speak to kids about prospective careers. She was sure Chef Richert would be a shining example for her students. He agreed without hesitation, and just like that, something fantastic was planned.
On Monday, Chef Richert visited the center and spoke openly and honestly about his past and his own trials with school, all the while making lunch for the students. “Chef Richert truly had an impact on our students. His honesty about his past challenges–paired with his success and talent–made him a true inspiration to our youth who are trying to find their place in the world,” said Watson. “Many of our high risk youth have skills that haven’t been properly channeled or tapped into, but when young, motivated professionals like JJ come to share their stories, our students start to think about how they have the power to mold their own future. Often the opportunities, if any, offered to out of school youth are myopic; our students need to see the endless possibilities for application of their skills. Part of our curriculum includes our students learning about the importance of giving back to the community; JJ’s willingness to share with our students demonstrates this value and serves as a model for our youth.”
Having sat in on the visit, I can say with confidence that the students were inspired by Chef Richert’s story. But you don’t have to take my word for it. When asked what he learned from Chef Richert’s demonstration, Joe Kuhn, a recent SBEC graduate said, “Through determination and hard work you can do anything you put your mind to as long as you stay focused on your goals, work hard to achieve them and maintain a positive attitude and outlook on the problems you have along the way.” Another point of interest is that the SBEC is very much an “intellectual family”, which is why a graduate came back to sit in on a life lesson. Kuhn didn’t have to be there, he chose to be there. Ashley Richlmayr, SBEC GED Student said, “JJ Richert is a great chef and is a very open and honest person about his life. He also makes really, really good food.”
He is also a really, really good man. Thanks to both Watson and Richert for taking time out to make a difference in the lives of our youth, and providing another shining example of why Buffalo is called “City of Good Neighbors” For more information about the center, please visit the SBEC website.