A 4-year-old program offered through Washington County Mental Health, which serves central Vermont, uses chocolate making as a tool to foster personal growth and build life skills in young people.
Vermont Chocolate for Change reaches 25 or more students a year, five or six at a time for eight-week programs. The program includes both hands-on work in the kitchen and in group discussions that aim to build professional knowledge, communication skills, and self-confidence.
"It helps me concentrate and get focused on what I need to do to go out on my own," said 18-year-old student Shari-Jo Perkins.
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"I'm not always a very social person, so this has helped me work with groups better than I used to," added Brandon Butler, 16.
There are any number of reasons young clients may come to Chocolate for Change, program directors said. Those include developmental disabilities, histories of trauma, rocky home lives in the foster care system, and drug use risks.
Nicole Grenier, who founded the program, explained the primary mission of Vermont Chocolate for Change as "being able to increase their self-esteem."
Grenier said all the skills that go into running a kitchen, including proper equipment handling, sanitation, and the ability to manage inventories, serve as tools for building confidence, as well as job and life skills. Group discussions may focus on how to begin a job search, or how to address problems that come up in daily life.
"It is opening their eyes to the fact that they may have more choices than they ever thought possible," Grenier added.
"It's not always about counseling," said Mary Moulton, the executive director of Washington County Mental Health. "It's not always about psychiatry. Sometimes it's about what we have to do to teach ourselves to be better."
Moulton said in addition to Chocolate for Change, Washington County Mental Health has a host of other innovative programs aimed at increasing wellness and recovery, including through art, working with animals, and physical activity like yoga.
Students sell their chocolates around central Vermont and even ship out-of-state. They put proceeds back into the program, which is also grant-funded. Critical support has come in from Ben & Jerrys, Vermont Creamery, and the Vermont Community Loan Fund, Grenier said.
"It's a really safe environment for youth in transition," said Heather Houle, who joined Chocolate for Change a few years back as a young mom with no real job experience. "When you’re that age, people want to party, people want to do drugs and have a good time."
Houle told New England Cable News the skills and independence she built through the organization helped her steer clear of a wasted life spent with the wrong crowd or high on drugs, so she could focus on raising her son. Houle now works as an instructor for the youth at Vermont Chocolate for Change.
"I don't know where my life would have turned if I didn't have the opportunities I have today," Houle said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., who has prioritized reducing drug addiction in Vermont, praises non-profits like Washington County Mental Health for seeking creative approaches to addressing a myriad of challenges that have their roots in mental health issues. Their work, Shumlin said, will contribute to stronger communities.
"It gets people back on the right track," Shumlin said. "Everybody's thinking of their own ways to solve a problem that we’'ve all been ignoring. And I think it’s examples like this that give me hope."
The team at Vermont Chocolate for Change, including Justin Dupre, said they hope to continue growing their enterprise and showing the country how chocolate is changing them.
"It’s been great," Dupre beamed.
Click here to visit the website of Vermont Chocolate for Change: http://www.vermontchocolateforchange.com/