Teens practice social skills with help from local restaurants

Michael Cummo

Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “One cannot think well, sleep well, or love well, if one has not dined well.” A shared meal, in the company of conversation and friends, nourishes our humanity and sustains our culture. For seven Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students, learning to dine well is the keystone in an innovative social skills curriculum created by school guidance counselor, Sharon Engler, and generously buttressed by upscale Island restaurants.
“Several of the students had never eaten in a restaurant at all, let alone the high-end ones we have here,” Ms. Engler said. “There is an awakening happening.” Her project, entitled “Food For Thought,” is an interdisciplinary dining and socializing syllabus created to impart interaction and life skills for seven MVRHS students faced with communication and emotional challenges, including autism spectrum disorder. Ms. Engler has developed the inspired teaching device to transform bland etiquette training into transformative gourmet experiences.
Directed by the Guidance Department at MVRHS to develop a series of social skill learning modules, Ms.Engler worried “that flip charts with handshaking and eye-contact graphics would be boring, for the students and for me. To truly teach social skills I realized I needed to find a way to get them to open up, relax, and interact.” After brainstorming with her husband, Bill Engler, a marketing specialist, Sharon realized she would need to convince local restaurants and school officials that taking “students away from school property into the community, to learn from other adults in a professional setting, was the best way to impart these vital lessons.”
No convincing was necessary –– Atria, Sharky’s, Offshore Ale, State Road Restaurant, and The Wharf Pub answered enthusiastically. Ms. Engler said she was humbled by the immediate support she received. “Every single restaurant owner I spoke with was immediately onboard: within the first few seconds of my explaining the project, they all kept saying how they wanted to be there for our kids, to support them,” she said, adding that the generosity of restaurant owners donating the entire meal has only been outdone by their willingness to share their expertise and time.

Transportation challenges were generously met by Bluefish Taxi Company, which donated a portion of the costs.

Principal Gil Traverso “loved the idea from the start,” Ms. Engler said. “I am so grateful for his support of this project.” Ms. Engler chooses a basic topic to be covered at each dining experience — like “Job Interview Techniques” or “Table Etiquette” — and then collaborates with the restaurant owners and managers to lead the students in an open discussion. “It has been absolutely incredible” Ms. Engler said. “The students are so interested, their eyes are glued, they ask questions, they open up. What has been most surprising to me is how the conversation becomes something unique to their lives and concerns, and because of that, relationships are forming within the group, and behavior is changing. It’s really exciting.”

At Sharky’s in Edgartown, owner Jon Blau and General Manager Karen Bruno focused on interview techniques. “Karen shared her professional journey, she got out her iPad and showed them how to navigate the online application,” Ms. Engler said. “She gave them her secrets in interviewing, what she looks for in candidates…some of the students have even applied to host at Sharky’s.”

At Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs, the mechanics of restaurant management and microbrewing were explored. “Our theme there was ‘Culinary as a Career,’” Ms. Engler said. “The discussion was great, even the shy kids got involved.” Owners Phil and Colleen McAndrews talked about building a career over the long term, the importance of business and personal reputations, and how personal character translates into success, after a tour by brewer Neil Atkins and manager Jessie Holtham.

In preparing for their visit to upscale Atria, Ms. Engler said the students had to plan to dress up. “One student wanted to wear a suit, but didn’t have one,” she said. “He shared his worry with one of his peers and together they worked out wearing khakis and a nice sweater. That kind of interaction would never have happened otherwise. There are bonds appearing now, and new friendships. It brings tears to my eyes.”
At Atria, “we learned all about fine dining etiquette, table manners, setting a table, folding napkins, how to politely order and return the menu to a server, things that no one has ever explained to these kids before,” Ms. Engler said.
As a certified counselor and teacher, with a double masters in Educational Leadership and Counseling, Ms.Engler’s most impressive credential is being a mother of five. “Developing mental health for children is as important as supporting academic achievement,” she said. “This project is encouraging diversity outside the traditional learning environment, different from the classroom or the athletic field. It allows them to let their guard down and interact on a practical level. Cooking and eating are such a great metaphors and these skills can applied to many so different situations and careers.”
In the coming weeks, Food For Thought will visit The Wharf Pub in Edgartown and State Road Restaurant. “At The Wharf, we will be focusing on personal relationships: dating and friendship and their important differences,” Ms. Engler said. “At State Road we will explore the whole farm to table movement, local food sources, sustainability, and problem solving when trying to run a locally sourced business.” The curricula will culminate with a potluck dinner at the school, hosted by the students who will “each invite one guest, a family member, or friend, whom they want to share a meal with and all they’ve learned during this process. We want them to help someone else feel comfortable in a situation that feels awkward or new.”
Ms. Engler speaks of her students and generous supporters with tenderness and pride. “This is truly a community effort, and it’s changing things for these kids, how they view their peers walking down the school hallway, as well as how they view themselves,” she said.

In an era of texting and tweeting, social interaction sometimes needs to be taught, and then practiced. Sharon Engler and Vineyard restaurateurs have struck upon a model for helping our young people become healthy, active, community members.