Angela Chotka: Rising Hope Bakery

Heritage Group meeting of October 17, 2019.

Angela Chotka is a Program Manager in RRC’s School of Hospitality & Culinary Arts. We thank her for agreeing to fill in at the last minute for today’s originally scheduled speaker, Rebecca Chartrand, who was unable to attend. Angela started at RRC in the Applied Arts portfolio of Continuing Education.  While there, she was asked to do a pilot study to deliver RRC’s Professional Baking and Patisserie Certificate Program, in community, to people that don’t often experience post-secondary success. The following is her sharing of that experience to date.

For many, poverty, mental health issues, addiction and trauma are barriers to higher education. Facing many such barriers, Angela’s target audience clearly needed different supports and a different understanding of what is needed to be successful in a post-secondary program.  The Program’s challenge was to prepare them for post-secondary success, resulting in three particular areas of focus:

  1. College preparation.
  2. Life-stabilization.
  3. Self-management.

College Preparation

280 hours of College Prep were spread out over four months. Because students weren’t used to sitting for a full day, with people they didn’t know, class-time was initially limited to three hours per day. Math and science were pillars of the program, but the project touched on all areas of college life. It was important for students to understand and then put distance between from their previous school experiences. So, pedagogically, project- and competency-based learning were central to the design. One assignment focused on researching strategies for coping with one’s own stress, followed by putting the information into a PowerPoint, presenting it to staff and classmates, and then having group discussion.  Another had students work together to make safety signs in poster format for machines in the bakery.

Life Stabilization

Students are often required to participate with external organizations such as Child and Family Services (CFS), housing and Employment and Income Assistance (EIA). These organizations tend to be complex and, despite good intentions, sometimes operate in silos. Our Students relationships’ with outside groups are often not very good, or are very complicated. Uncertainty and chaos in their lives can make it difficult to keep to schedules and attend meetings, and not having a printer to print out forms – often required to be filled out by other service providers – make it hard to meet program requirements and deadlines.

To recruit students for this pilot program, RRC reached out to agencies such as the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, the Mood Disorders Group of Manitoba and the Schizophrenia Society for help find students at a point in their recovery journey where they were ready for the next step. Candidates needed a referral, and had to have been working with the referring organization for a couple of years and be stable in their recovery. Having enough stability to try post secondary was crucial. The referring organizations also committed to providing the students ongoing support.

One of the hardest pieces has been navigating the financial supports for students. It was very grim for students. Prior to RRC’s involvement, students were not always getting what they were entitled to from outside agencies. For example, doctors’ forms were being emailed to them. How can someone with no access to a printer print off forms? The program’s counsellor case manager, having previously worked in EI and understanding what was involved, helped with these complex pieces and advocated for students. Some students were living on $235 a month when they started the program. The counsellor would advocate for the students to ensure they got what they were entitled to.


Students have learned strategies for handling conflict and stress that are not usually acceptable in many professional environments. We unpacked existing strategies and the impact on others and then work on handling conflict and stress. Many had never been taught what is expected in post-secondary (e.g. how to work in a library, what is unprofessional conduct, how to manage one’s own frustration). So they not only suffered high anxiety, but were also not aware of how they were reacting and impacting the people around them.

Many students had not had a good experience in school. Being told they wouldn’t amount to anything filled them with self-doubt and a lack of confidence. To help the students uncover what provoked them, they were given mini breaks to pay attention to their bodies. In the face of so much trauma, lateness was approached from, “How are you today?”, rather than, “You’re late”. More emphasis was placed on punctuality later in the program as part of their professionalism mark.

Some of the students had finished high school, some were new in recovery, some were involved with CFS and the justice system. All the women interviewed had kids and, usually, were the sole providers. Most of the men interviewed had kids but were marginally or peripherally involved with them. So program breaks were adjusted to coincide with their kids’ school breaks. Classes were also only scheduled four days a week, leaving Wednesdays open. This allowed students to take care of things that would otherwise cause anxiety in class, such as handing in a form to an outside agency, medical, housing or other required appointments.

Program Delivery

The program shares space with the Main Street Project’s Food Bank & Essentials Market. Instead of a dedicated classroom, they used the Main Street Project’s boardroom. Space limitations meant that only six of the 24 agency referrals could be chosen to participate. No tuition was charged, and health insurance was covered. Housing was in group homes or secondary stage housing (e.g. justice, sober housing).

Program staff consisted of four people from RRC: one full-time instructor for College Prep and one for the baking program, a part-time educational assistant, and a part-time counsellor case manager. The counsellor was more of a crisis counsellor at first as students were not used to being in a classroom and had to be taught what was expected from the beginning. The counsellor also provided financial counselling.

Most of the program’s equipment was re-purposed, a lot of it coming from a basement at the Notre Dame Campus. Health and Safety helped with needed repair work. External stakeholders were very supportive, with suppliers heavily discounting small wares.

Student Success

Students ages ranged from mid-20s to 50s. A criminal record check was not required for either program admission or final certification.

Sometimes it was hard to study in their home environments (e.g. 11 people in one spot). Many things in their lives make success more difficult than we might think. Yet students were technically doing brilliantly, all gravitating to different aspects of baking. And their whole attitude about education, and their children’s, was changed. For example, children would tell their Moms’, “I am studying like Mom,” while holding a book – even upside down!

The program includes a cooperative work component. Some students work on employers’ sites and others would work in house, depending on where they were and what they needed. Some were not yet able to cope with the requirements and more rigid structure of the workplace. RRC has been very honest about the students with business and industry, not hiding anything while helping the students understand their right to privacy and dignity. It was therefore very heartening to find businesses so supportive. It allowed the program to offer co-op placements, pairing student interest with workplace experience. However, unlike most other co-op programs, participating students here are unpaid, so they do not lose their other benefits.

Industry is often interested in micro credentials (e.g. yeast goods, cakes, plated desserts, pastries). So a student who did well in breads, for example, but did not complete everything in the Professional Baking Patisserie Program, could still find an incomplete certificate useful, depending on where they wanted to work.

The project did lose two students: one from a natural death and one from an addiction relapse. However, the student wrestling with addiction will be able to rejoin, since a significant portion of the program had been completed prior to the relapse.

Lessons Learned

One of the hidden benefits has been communication. Though emotionally taxing for all involved, staff had the opportunity to get to know the participants. And if the program results in students staying out of remand, their kids not being in care for the 4th generation, and their not living in subsidized housing, then it is worth it. It is one step towards ending homelessness, decreasing poverty, and having fewer children in care.

But administration and instructors still have lots to learn, especially with regards to understanding how trauma affects cognition. Due to the neurological changes in the brain, we are learning that meth addiction impacts learning differently than alcohol addiction.

To this point, the project has been kept sheltered and unpublicized. Students will be tracked for five years. We can only hope that, eventually, we will be able to confirm longstanding and permanent positive outcomes.

Categories: All, Guest Speakers

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