This article was originally published in the winter 2024 issue of the Ivy Indy magazine.
Cooking is not just about preparing a meal; it's a journey of independence, confidence, and self-discovery. For students at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI), this journey is becoming a reality, thanks to an innovative new cooking program developed in collaboration with Ivy Tech Indianapolis.
Starting a culinary program at ISBVI has been a dream goal for Judy Reynolds. Reynolds has served at ISBVI for 30 years as a teacher, coordinator of the student training and employment program, and now, as ISBVI's Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) director. A position of which she will soon retire.
“The idea for the cooking class had been brewing for years, but there were challenges to overcome. Finding the right person with the expertise to teach blind students how to cook confidently was a significant hurdle. We needed someone who not only understood cooking but also possessed a deep understanding of the unique challenges and adaptations required for individuals with visual impairments,” Reynolds said.
ISBVI’s ECC consists of nine essential areas for the holistic development of blind students. Independent living is one of these critical areas, and cooking is a fundamental life skill within this category. ISBVI students have been limited within a kitchen for decades, only learning to work a microwave and an electric frying pan as instructors strayed away from the oven and stovetop.
"The kids wanted to learn how to cook on the stove and use the oven, but we didn't feel confident enough in ourselves to teach all the culinary skills that a blind individual learns intrinsically," Reynolds said.
That was until Jody May, Ivy Tech Indianapolis’ first blind culinary arts graduate, entered the picture.
When it was time for May to complete an externship, Chef Jeff Bricker, the department chair of the hospitality administration at Ivy Tech Indianapolis, called ISBVI and asked if she could be a student teacher in their ECC cooking class. Although Reynolds said yes, she was initially wary about how it would work. However, Reynolds says, her fears disappeared on May’s first day.
“She just fit in perfectly,” Reynolds said. “I think the most important thing was that the kids were being taught by someone who was blind just like them, and that’s inspiring,” she continued,” “Jody was such a role model.”
ISBVI, IBCF, Jeff Bricker, Judy Reynolds, and Jody May helped orchestrate a cooking class for six ISBVI students with Christine Ha, the season three winner of MasterChef, at the Conference Center and Culinary Institute on the downtown Indianapolis campus. Photo By Jeff Bricker.
Jody May (right) is photographed during the virtual cooking class with Christine Ha. Photo by Jeff Bricker.
Ever since beginning her studies at Ivy Tech, May’s goal has been to help those blind or with vision impairments learn how to cook a full meal. Since losing her sight in 2012, she has realized how much people without sight are at the mercy of those who do have sight.
“I really want to help those students who are getting ready to graduate from high school and go off to college to be independent in the kitchen so they don't have to rely on somebody else to feed themselves or order delivery all the time,” May said.
May’s classes during her externship focused on identifying cooking tools, learning how to use knives, and meal prep. Her course was a hit, and her lessons invigorated the students. May’s expertise was in such demand that she began visiting them in their dormitories in the evening, teaching them how to prepare dishes for dinner, and it continued through summer. Finally, May’s time at ISBVI ended as she prepared to continue her studies at Indiana University - Indianapolis.
May says that from there, multiple facets and divine timing finally put the ball in motion for an adaptive culinary arts program at ISBVI.
“For starters, the students really expressed wanting to gain those independent skills. And I think what kind of tipped the ball over the edge was seeing the students I got to work with be in the kitchen and hearing them talk about what they got to do, what they learned, and executing on that,” May said. “Once all parties realized students not only want this but need it to be successful, it pushed forward.”
Before you knew it, the Indiana Blind Children's Foundation (IBCF) and Chef Bricker became involved. ISBVI, IBCF, Bricker, Reynolds, and May helped orchestrate a cooking class for six ISBVI students with Christine Ha, the season three winner of MasterChef, at the Conference Center and Culinary Institute on the downtown Indianapolis campus. Chef May and Chef Bricker were two of several adults in the room helping the students through the virtual cooking class in which Ha, known as the blind cook, taught them how to make Chinese cold sesame noodles.
The entire course was recorded, and the video played at IBCF’s annual Through the Looking Glass Gala on Oct. 7, 2023. IBCF raised over $200,000 towards the first adaptive culinary arts program at ISBVI with the help of Reitano Design Group, whose adaptive kitchen designs helped gala attendees envision an adaptive kitchen.
“Learning to cook is such an important aspect of life, and we do our students a disservice by only teaching them how to operate a microwave. Many ISBVI students want to move on to four-year colleges, and learning how to cook for themselves is a big part of gaining that independence to continue their education,” May said.
ISBVI will temporarily occupy Indianapolis Public Schools’ Floro Torrence School 83 and George Buck School 94 for five to six years while its permanent campus is renovated. In partnership with IBCF, the school has decided to build a movable kitchen that can be utilized while in the temporary location and transported to their new campus down the line. Cunningham Restaurant Group is also partnering with IBCF and ISBVI to continue monthly cooking classes with ISBVI students throughout the temporary relocation.
The curriculum for the program is still being developed, with plans to start the next academic year. Chef Bricker and May’s expertise and dedication have been invaluable in shaping the program. Although they’re still in the planning phase along with Reynolds and others, May shares that the course will begin with foundational skills such as tool identification and basic cooking techniques and progress to more advanced topics. The goal, ultimately, is to ensure that students leave ISBVI with the skills they need to live independently and confidently.
As for May's role in the program, she hopes to teach at ISBVI in the future, but until then, she sees herself as a resource and advocate for the students. Her passion for helping students gain independence shines through, making her an integral part of this transformative initiative.
“Once this program starts, we can only grow from here,” May said. “My goal is for ISBVI to be fully adaptive in its classes. I want to meet every student and their individual needs where they’re at. Whatever life has handed them, we will work with them to find these workarounds. And from there, I also want to teach sighted parents how to teach their blind or visually impaired children how to cook.”
With dedicated advocates like May, Chef Bricker, IBCF, and the support of Ivy Tech Indianapolis, the future looks bright for ISBVI’s visually impaired students as they embark on their journey toward culinary independence.
“I’ve always found that being in the kitchen is a way for me to relax and express myself. I want others who are like me to get the chance to experience that,” May said. “My goal is to have the students leave ISBVI and feel confident enough to come to Ivy Tech and continue their education.”
About Ivy Tech Community College
Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.