“Allright, my chefs,” shouts Holly Tonak to a group of 15 kids at GiGi’s Playhouse in Fort Wayne. “Are you ready?”

The first class of a 12-week program called GiGi’s Kitchen Kids is off and running. The group consists of children ages 6-12 with Down Syndrome. Enrollement for this class filled up in one day.

“The goal of GiGi’s Playhouse is to empower individuals with Down Syndrome and hope they can become the best version of themselves and be independent,” says Tonak, Excutive Director for GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne. “I think this class is a huge step towards that.”

Holly Tonak, Executive Director at GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne demonstrates the claw method when cutting a pepper.

“The kids gain confidence in the kitchen and learn about nutrition,” she says. Most importantly, “they have fun!”

The eager group has their aprons on, ready to go. Many wear a chef hat. “My co-lead Kristen has spoons that are blue and yellow.”

GiGi’s Ambassador, Kristen Beaubien passes out the spoons and plays a big role assisting Tonak as she breaks the class into two groups. “I help people and guide them to the the right things, and the right directions,” she says.

GiGi’s Playhouse Ambassador Kristen Beaubien co-leads the GiGi’s Kitchen Kids program.

Beaubien is excited for the chance to help out in the kitchen. “My mom and dad inspire me to cook more,” she says. “I bake cookies with mom, and my dad has a Big Green Egg, so I help him with chicken and pork.”

Tonak notices Beaubien darting around the room, helping students in various ways. “I hope everyone gains independence and confidence,” she says. “A lot of times our friends aren’t given the opportunity to even hold a knife, but here at the Playhouse, we have safety knives that protect those fingers.”

As Tonak addresses the group at the table, she holds out her hand for all to see. “Hold it like a claw. Protect those fingers!” As she she cuts a red pepper, she chuckles, “you can growl if you want to,” as a young boy growls in response like a big, happy bear.

A young chef growls like a bear as he practices the claw method to protect fingers when cutting with a safety knife.

“They’re given opportunities that they aren’t given anywhere else,” she says. “And it’s all free. Our families aren’t paying a dime for this.”

As the class moves along, Tonak spots a girl who looks to be a natural in the kitchen. “Marie, that is great slicing. We’ve got a chef at the end. Hot dang!”

High five for Louisa!

The theme on this first day is “Grill and Chill.” “We’re grilling today,” she says enthusiastically to the group. “On an indoor grill,” she says with a slight letdown in her voice. That changes quickly as her and a student spray the grill press to get ready to make quesadillas.

“Holly is amazing here at GiGi’s,” says Hilary Riley, mother of seven-year-old Louisa who is in the class. “Anything she does, she does with excellence, so I wanted Louisa to be a part of that.”

This program has added meaning for Tonak, a former Special Education Teacher. “GiGi’s is run by volunteers. We’re 99-percent volunteer run, so if you want a program, you need to volunteer for it. I took my executive director hat off and put my mom hat on because I want this for my son, so I’m teaching.”

Holly Tonak and a young chef prepare the grill for quesadillas.

Riley has seen the impact first hand. “GiGi’s puts on a lot of different things,” she says. “It’s also a place for our kids to play and come together and see other kids that are like them, and that’s really important too.”

“Good job,” shouts Kristen as she high fives little Louisa who breaks out in a beautiful smile.

It’s all smiles everywhere you look as Kristen guides students to the grill with their sliced red peppers and zucchini.

Controlled chaos is one way to describe 15 little chefs just starting their 12-week journey. Tonak and Kristen’s mom look on with pride as she shares her excitement to help out.

“I just like to learn,” she says. “I can’t wait to learn for other people so they can have the knowledge to learn and grow with me.”

It’s what GiGi’s Playhouse is all about.

Let’s get cooking!