Occupational Therapy Students Teach Homeless Youth How to Build Life Skills Through Cooking

Students from the School of Occupational Therapy are used to learning in the classroom. But for the last two years, they’ve partnered with the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY) to teach teenagers how to cook.

“Nevada has one of the highest rates of unsheltered unaccompanied homeless youth in the country, with more than 20,000 school students experiencing homelessness each year,” said Dr. Johnny Rider, Assistant Professor in the School of Occupational Therapy. “In 2019, we partnered with NPHY to offer some after-school classes. This was the first time NPHY had partnered with occupational therapists. After educating the staff on the role of occupational therapy, the social workers asked us to design our interventions toward life skills.”

According to Dr. Rider, they found that most of the youth lacked confidence when it came to cooking; specifically, when it came to cooking healthy meals.

“Many never had the opportunity to cook a meal and lacked basic cooking skills,” he said. “So, we designed group interventions to develop positive occupational identities through increased engagement in healthy behaviors, such as meal preparation.”

Pre-pandemic, the OTD students held cooking classes in person at the drop-in center. The youth learned about balanced diets and cooked healthy meals alongside Touro’s OTD students. NPHY asked if Touro could offer virtual classes during COVID-19 because the program was so successful.

Supervised by Dr. Rider, students Saron Abraham, Robin Mercado, Liliana Garcia, Kiele Char, Michaela Montano, Aja Ganub, Simran Kaur, and Nicky Stevens used Zoom to host the cooking classes at multiple sites and prepared main dishes and desserts. Abraham planned the Kosher menu and gathered the recipes. Each week, the students and youth learned how to safely and independently cook healthy Kosher meals and enjoyed fun ice-breaker games and good conversation.

“Touro’s partnership with NPHY has been a fun and interactive way to get involved in the Las Vegas youth community,” Montano said. “I enjoyed how my classmates and I were able to use cooking to help the youth engage in meaningful and useful occupations. This experience has impacted me as a future OT to always encourage the use of occupational-based activities to promote the health and wellness of others.”

Dr. Rider said the experience has benefited both Touro’s students and the youth from NPHY.

“Research has shown that as self-efficacy and healthy behaviors evolve with empowering occupations, homeless individuals can begin to meet educational goals, maintain employment, establish a home, achieve family unity, and improve their overall quality of life,” Dr. Rider said. “These cooking classes are just a small example of empowering occupational engagement.”