Bonnie and another student introduce their four-course tasting menu to guests who’ve come to learn about The Dinner Bell program.

A ringing endorsement for The Dinner Bell

Campbell River program teaches cooking skills to mental health clients who, in turn, make meals for others

It wasn’t so long ago when Bonnie was afraid to use the stove in her own home.

Today, wearing her cook’s outfit and blue apron, she stands in front of 15 people – mostly strangers – and explains how “The Dinner Bell” program changed her life.

“Some people think that people with mental illness can’t do anything. We’re here to prove them wrong. We can do a lot things!” she says with a warm smile.

There’s no mistaking her confidence and her audience shows their agreement with a round of applause. They’ve just enjoyed a scrumptious four-course tasting menu, topped off with juicy strawberries dipped in thick chocolate.

The desert taster followed baked cod with dill sauce and quinoa, spanakopita with rice pilaf, and stuffed pork loin and smashed potato. The big hit though was the homemade bacon mac and cheese.

“I love the crisp little onions,” says Leslie MacLennan after another delightful bite.

MacLennan is the co-ordinator of rehabilitation services for Campbell River Mental Health and Substance Use services which refers clients to the program, a partnership between Island Health and the Salvation Army.

The program started last year and began with renovating the kitchen to commercial grade at the Sally Ann’s Ocean Crest Church. The next step was bringing in chef Connie Preston whose attention to food detail is as important as the lessons and steady guidance she provides to her students.

“I come to work every day and I’m excited,” says Preston.

Her first class of four has already graduated, some have returned as mentors and more people are improving their lives, and their mental health, by learning new skills and building confidence in themselves.

“I’ve been through addiction and stuff,” says Scarlet. “This has been a great experience of learning and I want to get back into the workforce…the people here have been a real support system for me.”

Others, who aren’t in the program, are also benefiting first-hand from The Dinner Bell. The meals prepared by the classes are frozen and sold to other clients with mental health and addiction issues.

For a nominal fee, they receive three nutritious meals a week. And that’s a great thing, says MacLennan, because many clients survive off social assistance and either don’t have the money or the kitchen skills to eat this well.

“For a lot of people, mac and cheese usually comes out of a box. This is much better,” she says.

Preston and her students follow the Canada Food Guide. Each student receives at least 150 hours of training, a combination of study and hands-on cooking…and cleaning!

“Everybody learns how to wash dishes,” Preston says with a chuckle.

The hope for graduates is they continue on to a formal cooking school, like at North Island College, or get a job in a kitchen or restaurant, or have the confidence to do something else with their lives.

“It’s amazing training. It’s rewarding and fun,” says Carl. “This has changed my life.”

Bonnie stands next in front of the group of strangers and tells them what she used to be like, “I was real nervous around stoves, but I thought this would be the best setting to be in if something goes wrong.

“This has been a blessing. I use my own stove now and I don’t panic. I’ve grown more confident. We’re all here to support one another and we’re friends!”