Kids' camp gives new meaning to term 'comfort food'

When Alan Orozco went to grief camp in late summer, he was already a couple of steps ahead of his brothers and peers who were part of the recovery youth group in Granbury. Thanks to valuable counseling that Alan received after the devastating loss of an older brother, the 10-year-old Fort Worth boy had begun to find a healthy way to heal.

And that was in the kitchen, a place long known to be the heart of a home and a center of emotional therapy. He's only a fifth-grader, but Alan is learning how cooking can help someone connect with feelings of satisfaction and peace.

Alan's realization came during a gratifying cooking-camp experience during the summer, but finding that window to recovery took a few months. Surviving the shock and loss of someone dear proves difficult for anyone, but it can be especially tough for a child.

Alan's brother, Edward, was about to turn 12 when he was killed in a car accident in February. Alan was also injured in the accident, says his mom, Araseli Orozco, who survived, along with Alan's four other brothers, Ramon, 13; Alex, 8; Jesse, 2; and Matthew, 1.

"Alan was very close to Edward. They did everything together," says Araseli Orozco, who will still weep a bit at the mention of the tragedy. "Edward was a very sensitive guy, really thoughtful. He took care of me."

Of the six boys, Edward had fun spending time in the kitchen, and Alan liked helping him. When therapist Janice Lord, who has treated the family at Trauma Support Services of North Texas for most of this year, heard this, she hatched an idea.

Lord wanted a constructive way for Alan to deal with his grief. Losing Edward was so difficult, his mother and therapist say, that he would have panic attacks and faint at the mention of Edward's name. What's more, he had trouble controlling his temper and was getting into fights.

"Alan had painful injuries from the crash, in addition to grieving over Edward," Lord said. "Alan was having outbursts of anger at home and at school because he wasn't able to put his feelings into words."

Although Alan talked about growing up to be a boxer, his mom and therapist wanted to find a nonviolent activity. Lord found the kids' summer cooking camp at Ben Barber Career Tech Academy in Mansfield, which offered Alan a scholarship, opening a new avenue to the boy.

To illustrate his accomplishments, Alan took a couple of visitors to revisit the school recently, rejoining his instructor in the large, well-equipped commercial kitchen. There, Alan and chef Lisa Amoriello -- whom the kids call "Chef A" -- set about working on Alan's specialty, omelets.

Cracking eggs like a pro, Alan talked about the keys to making a great omelet.

"You don't put too much oil in the pan or you'll fry your eggs," he said. "And a pan that isn't too big helps, too."

While they worked, Chef A casually introduced Edward as a topic of conversation. Although Alan was quiet, he spoke in a calm voice and stayed steady in his prep tasks, whisking his eggs and chopping spinach and bacon. He showed patience and comfort in his work, moving to the stove and handling the spatula and pan with little trouble.

It was clear that talking about Edward wasn't something he relished, but the culinary tasks eased the process.

"Cooking makes me feel better," he says.

During the two-week camp, Alan and fellow cooking campers worked in teams, each named for a famous chef. Alan's team was Team Ramsay, for Gordon Ramsay of television's Hell's Kitchen; Alan says they weren't allowed to scream at people, however, as the TV chef is renowned for doing.

Alan's favorite dishes learned in camp were pork chops, pasta, "cowboy" cookies, cinnamon rolls and decorated cupcakes, but his omelets drew the most praise. Chef A said that at the camp showcase, an event that concludes the term, guests raved that "Alan's omelets were fantastic."

Alan was a hit with the school, too: "We'd like him to come back for next summer's camp and be one of our sous-chefs," Chef A said. "We even pay a small fee for the work."

At home, Araseli Orozco noticed a difference in Alan's behavior soon after he began cooking camp. Lord had taught him deep-breathing techniques, and his mother noticed that he seemed calmer.

"He really enjoyed the cooking and started taking Edward's role and seeing what I needed. Alan helps me a lot with Jesse and Matthew, the babies. He bathes them when I'm at work," said Alan's mother, who is a medical receptionist in Fort Worth. "The day before they went to grief camp, he saw I was busy packing their things and he took action. He made omelets for his brothers by himself."

Araseli Orozco hopes Alan will hold onto his cooking passion.

"He's a preteen, and I don't want him getting involved with all the things that come with peer pressure. I'd like to him to keep busy with something constructive like this," she said.

When he's not cooking, Alan likes watching cooking shows. Cake Boss on TLC is a particular favorite, and Alan hopes to take classes in baking, too.

Alan's family lives close to the Central Market store in Fort Worth, which is donating a week of kids camp in the cooking school to Alan next March, during spring break. Other individuals familiar with Alan's story have also offered to subsidize single classes, such as a Halloween special this month.

Lord says this comes as good news.

"He learned teamwork in the classes, but he also learned how to achieve things all on his own," Lord said, noting that therapy can also be found in the soothing process of feeding others.

"I believe that the talking comes so much easier over great food.... It is gratifying to plan, prepare and serve a meal that enables that process."