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Culinary Arts program goes global with virtual presentation to international students

March 23, 2021

Jackson, Mich. -- COVID restrictions may have prevented a group of international students from traveling to America this year, but that didn’t stop others from making sure they got to experience some of the American culture from afar. 

Jackson Area Career Center Culinary Arts instructor John Helmbreck, along with three students, his assistant and two Jackson area chefs, recently opened up the Career Center kitchen and turned on their cameras for a virtual Food Culture presentation to more than a dozen students around the world. 

Normally, hundreds of high school students from the Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) and Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Program (YES) come to America to live with a family and attend high school for one academic year, but that was unable to happen this year due to the pandemic. Instead, the students are participating in a virtual exchange program with host families and taking part in presentations with peers from local schools to learn about American culture. 

Youth For Understanding USA Community Development Manager Deb Fry reached out to Career Center instructor John Helmbreck after students indicated they wanted to learn about culinary arts through a live cooking demonstration. “What a great opportunity to expose students from around the world to American cuisine and what we do at the Career Center, of course I said yes”, said Mr. Helmbreck. 

Helmbreck gathered a crew that included his assistant Mary Sutton, Kurku Challenger, kitchen manager at Steve’s Ranch, and Davan Gerding, Food Operations Manager and Executive Chef at the Commonwealth Commerce Center. Three students also participated, including Mackenzie Goodloe, Rhianna Challenger and Sam Helmbreck. They put together a menu based on what the students wanted to see, set up a few cameras with the assistance of Visual Communications instructor Rick Diebold and logged on to Zoom. 

Fifteen students from ten different countries - Kenya, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, North Macedonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Bahrain, Bangladesh, and Turkey - took part in the live Food Culture presentation. A lot of the students requested a Thanksgiving dinner, so the chefs made a roast chicken (to stand in for the turkey), mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and apple pie. They also show the students how to make cheeseburgers, chicken curry with rice, and a Caribbean spin on a taco. Students could also ask questions during the demonstrations, while sharing their own cooking traditions, experiences and differences in eating habits in their home countries. 

“It’s unfortunate that the 2020-21 students were not able to come in person due to the pandemic,” said Patti Sanderson, Director of Grant Programs for Youth For Understanding USA. “However, thanks to volunteers like Chef Helmbreck, Chef Sutton, Chef Challenger, Chef Gerding and the student assistants, we are still able to provide activities that give the students opportunities to engage with Americans and learn about American culture, while also sharing their cultures with Americans. I have no doubt that many of them will realize their dream of coming to the U.S. in the future.” 

To show their appreciation for fostering intercultural awareness and education, Youth For Understanding USA will be making a donation to the Jackson Area Career Center Staff Memorial Fund, which assists students in need. Youth for Understanding USA will be welcoming FLEX and YES scholarship students in person this fall.  If you are interested in hosting a student, please visit

food culture demo

(from left to right: Rhianna Challenger, Sam Helmbreck, Kruku Challenger, Mary Sutton, and Mackenzie Goodloe)

food culture demo

Chef Challenger and student assistant Sam Helmbreck. Chef Gerding participated via Zoom, but we photoshopped him in here.

food culture demo

Student assistant Mackenzie Goodloe and Instructional Assistant Mary Sutton

Kaci Babineau
Marketing & Special Projects