Arun is a picture of concentration as he finishes off the mise en place for the day’s lunch service. Once done, he turns to the stove to start on the pasta sauce for one of the day’s lunch dishes. He may only be 17 but Arun is already a chef-in-training at the commercial kitchen of eat X dignity, an eatery in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur. His daily tasks in the kitchen range from prepping and cooking, stock-taking and drawing up the work schedule for the 10 or so staff at the eatery. Sometimes, he is put in charge of the lunch or dinner service.

The teen dreams of furthering his studies in culinary arts. His idols are British chefs Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

Arun, 17, discovered his love for cooking during a skills training stint in school. He wants to study culinary arts and be a chef like his idols Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. S.S.KANESAN/The Star

“I like Jamie Oliver’s personality but I want to strive for perfection in the kitchen like Gordon Ramsay,” says the young man who has just completed his International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) examination. While waiting for his results, Arun is working part-time at the restaurant to gain work experience.

“I discovered my passion in culinary arts as soon as I started my skills training with eat X dignity last year. I had done skills training in urban gardening before that and while it was also interesting, it wasn’t something I was passionate about. Working in the kitchen isn’t easy but I love it and I am learning something new every day,” says Arun.

Like all upper secondary students enrolled in the Dignity for Children Foundation’s school programme, Arun did a skills training component for two years, on top of his academic studies. Students can select skills training in F&B, sewing, hairdressing, woodworking, graphic design and urban gardening, among others. Three of these vocational skills have been developed into “transformational enterprises” where students also learn employability and entrepreneurial skills.

The first of the three enterprises is eat X dignity, which opened it’s doors in 2015; it was then called Project B. This was followed by a hairdressing saloon, cut X dignity, in 2016 and most recently, sew X dignity, a sewing and fashion design studio, late last year.

The enterprises are full-service, self-sustaining businesses that provide students real-life vocational and entrepreneurial training, explains Reverend Elisha Satvinder who along with his wife Petrina, founded Dignity for Children Foundation to provide learning opportunities for disadvantaged children almost 20 years ago.

“Conventional education tends to focus purely on academics and is removed from the community. Students typically don’t interact with society or their community. They don’t learn real life skills. We often hear employers lamenting about the quality of our graduates when they enter the workforce.

“We are trying to address this right at the school level. Our students do not only learn a trade; they have to serve and work with their customers. They learn to deal with rejection, solve problems and cope with issues that arise in the shop. They also learn responsibility, cleanliness and hygiene and also that things won’t always go their way. By the time they are 17, they are ahead of the curve,” he explains.

He shares the story of a student who joined their upper secondary school programme as a timid and highly-strung teen.

“She was borderline depressed. She believed that if she didn’t score As in her examinations, she was a failure. We had to make her see that scoring 85 marks in an exam does not make her a failure.

“In her first sewing class, she broke the needle of the sewing machine and was petrified; her hands were shaking because she thought she’d failed. My wife encouraged her to break a few more and keep on trying. By the end of the year, she’d done the most sewing among her classmates. She blossomed and gained more confidence.

“The children that come to us (from underprivileged backgrounds) are already brow-beaten. We need to empower and show them that they can do it. You broke a few needles, so what? You try again,” he says.

Finding their footing

Jessica, 17, wants to be a nurse. She chose sewing as her skills training component while in Form Four because “all girls should know how to sew”.

“I hated it at first,” admits the pint-sized girl. “I cried because it was so frustrating. Learning to use the sewing machines was hard.

“I enjoy it now though I still hold my breath each time my teacher checks my work. If she finds a mistake, I have to do it all again. I have definitely learnt to be patient and not give up, which are qualities I will need to be a good nurse,” she muses, flashing a smile.

Patience isn’t the only thing Jessica has learnt.

Jessica hated sewing at first. But after two years learning to sew in a tailoring shop, she’s learnt not only to sew but to be patient and stay the course. S.S. Kansan/The Star

Apart from learning to stitch, students are also taught to market their products – purses, pouches, aprons, scarves and bags. As part of their training, they set up stalls in bazaars and fairs. They are responsible for setting up shop under the guidance of their teacher and have to decide on the pricing of their wares.

“We learn how to do market research, to set the price and sell our products. Sometimes we don’t do so well on the first day, so we have to change and maybe reduce the price of our things. We also take (custom) orders which means we have to work under a tight deadline while making sure that each product is done well,” she says.

Students are taught to make five simple but highly marketable products: scarves, sling bags, laptop sleeves, aprons, wristlets and simple dresses. The material they use are mostly donated or recycled from old work shirts or curtains.

Irene, 16, can’t decide if she wants to be a singer or a hairstylist. For now, she can’t wait to resume her skills training at the hair saloon.

“Hair-dressing is really fun. So far I have learnt how to cut three styles: boy cut as well as long and medium bob. We have to find volunteers to practise on and I ask my school mates to let me cut and style their hair,” says Irene.

The saloon also gives its walk-in customers a choice of getting their hair done by a student, at a discounted price.

“It is sometimes scary cutting for a customer but our teacher is there to guide us. Learning the theory of how to cut and style is very different from actually working on a customer and I need to practise more,” says the young Myanmarese student.

At the Dignity school, children are given options and are allowed to decide on their future.

“It’s not about pitting skills against academics. It’s about exposing them to different things. Even if you excel in academics, you need to learn other skills to be a well-rounded person,” says Petrina.