A steaming plate of delicious homemade food served with a smile is more than just lunch for staff at Probstfield Center for Education. Friday Fellowship is something that employees look forward to every week. Not only does it nourish the body and connect the staff that work in diverse programs across the building, it is fundamentally a learning opportunity for students.
Friday Fellowship is a unique learning opportunity for students at Moorhead Area Public School’s new Level 4 program added this year at Probstfield Center for Education (PCE). The district started the program in response to a significant number of students moving into corporate foster care in Moorhead but the program has grown to include a variety of students. According to Duane Borgeson, executive director of learning support services, “These students were coming from pretty intense special education placements and we found they needed a more personalized educational setting than Moorhead High School.”
Students enrolled in the program dedicate a portion of their day to foundational living skills. This is where director Fred Weiss decided to try something unique to give his students meaningful ways to build academic skills while fostering a feeling of connectivity, family and unity. “One of the oldest traditions that we have as humans is to break bread together for connection,” said Weiss.
Weiss’ original idea was to have a coffee cart, but that quickly morphed into serving a weekly lunch when the group was offered use of the full kitchen. Deciding to take a risk and see what would happen, they sent out an invitation to the PCE staff and the rest is history. The PCE staff was all in. So were the students. Bill*l, a fifteen year old student in the program, enthusiastically stated, “It’s like having a job. Essentially, I am a waiter. I get to talk and interact with the people. It helps me with my communication skills. I am a social creature; in fact, some people say I have a silver tongue.”
The Friday lunch event actually starts for students on Thursday. The students work on their academic skills as they find out their budget based on the free will offering from the week before, look up recipes based on specific nutrition standards and go to the grocery store together to shop for the meal. Friday is cooking day. Students work on presentation as well as work skills and experience. They talk about positive customer service and doing your best. “Why give a little pout when you can give a little smile. The ones who can smile are the strong ones,” said Bill.
The students also get to practice social skills and positive interaction with the adults in the building. “It gives us a really good playground for practicing social skills in a safe setting. It gives students some real experience to face their social anxiety and build meaningful skills in a nurturing atmosphere,” claims Weiss.
Weiss works hard to connect his students not only with the nurturing adults in the building, but also with nurturing adults in the community. He believes in the importance of mentorship on the development of purpose and motivation for adolescence. Volunteers from community groups like F5 and YoungLife serve as mentors for the students and help with events like Friday Fellowship.
“Being surrounded by people who have purposeful lives makes a difference. We want to try to create a family unit with relationships that are deep and connected,” said Weiss. Borgeson agrees with the importance of positive relationships for the students and claims that Weiss’s leadership provides inspiration for the students. “He really understands the needs of the students, meets them where they can be successful and expects them to work and grow. The students can see that Fred is genuine and they respond positively to that.”
Not all students were sure about the Friday Fellowship program at first. One student chose not to attend in the beginning but soon realized he was missing out. Now he serves as the host to welcome staff to the lunch. Another student who misses a lot of school never misses on shopping day or event day. A mother of one of the students reported that her child has even cooked some meals at home since gaining cooking skills at Friday Fellowship. Bill summarizes the feelings of both students and participants well, “It’s an amazing thing. We try to do the best we can. It is amazing what anyone can do with just a little help.” With a smile he adds, “The donations really count, so remember that the next time you come.”
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the student.