By Emily Carpenter
It smells like cake, fresh apple butter cake. While it bakes, Catherine Avila and her student gather up the dishes. They stack them in the sink, and Avila shows her student what to do, turning on the water, adding soap. She watches for a moment with a slight smile, while the young woman washes the dishes. The soup and cake are underway. Soon the dishes will be done. Avila is helping another student make coffee, when the door opens up front in the library. The newcomer peruses the shelves for a couple of minutes before making his way to the kitchen. Avila greets him, wiping her hands on her long orange apron. When he asks what they do here, Avila laughs and says, “A little bit of everything.”
Catherine Avila is the kitchen coordinator of Reality Kitchen, a nonprofit organization designed to help people with developmental disabilities learn skills they can use to obtain a job and become involved in the community. “The perfect job is creating a job,” says Avila, but that isn’t all she does. Aside from teaching cooking skills and technical work like doing paperwork and ordering supplies, Avila helps run all the events Reality Kitchen hosts, including karaoke night, Reader’s Theater, and an acoustic open-mic-night, where musicians and poets can perform for people in the program. Reality Kitchen is designed for students who at 21 have aged out of school programs.
Avila has been working with developmentally disabled students for over 15 years. “She’s very patient, very open-minded and optimistic,” says Tony Atiles, a job coach for one of Avila’s students. He is impressed with her willingness to give her students a thorough understanding of life skills. This isn’t what Avila always wanted to do, though. She started in the restaurant business, working in a fancy steak and seafood place in Vancouver, British Columbia. “I did everything, from the dish-pit, busing, right up to bar tending and serving.” However, she attributes her cooking skills to her parents. Her British mother was an expert at tea and scones and was constantly baking. Her father liked growing and canning his food, brewing beer and making wine. She was also fortunate to live in a multicultural area, where she could learn about foreign cuisine, like the Indian soup she teaches her students to make.
The experience that changed Avila’s course was a trip to eastern Europe for the Youth with a Mission program. She was part of a mime show that performed in the streets but also got to work at Salvation Army, orphanages, and camps for students with developmental disabilities. By the time she had returned from her tour of Europe, Avila no longer wanted to work in the restaurant business. “Something had changed in me and I just–I wanted more,” says Avila.
Avila went to work at a children’s group home. Her first reaction was fear, and she wasn’t sure if she could do the work. “One of them was crawling around on his arms. He couldn’t use his legs, and he had a backwards tongue thrust, and he was drooling, and he was making noises,” says Avila. Though she was scared, Avila
kept going back. She came to understand the key was to know each person individually. Not only did she come to love the job, but she began to dream of starting her own program for students with developmental disabilities.
With the opening of Reality Kitchen, Avila has realized her dream. The only problem is the dream keeps growing. She and her husband Jim Evangelista, who directs Reality Kitchen, bought the building in Whiteaker and are building the program bit by bit. They teach students to cook, set them up with newspaper routes, give them books to read, but Avila still wants more. She and Evangelista are planning to have a newspaper that the students will help run. And then there are the goats.
Someday, Avila will have a minibus so the students can ride to a farm, where they will learn farm chores and goat care. Avila is descended from a group of French goat-keepers who had to escape France in wine barrels carried by the ocean, and since she moved to Eugene, she has started keeping her own goats. “Goats are great because they give.” says Avila, who likes the milk and cheese, and the way her goats follow her around the property. She believes working on a farm with animals will give her students valuable job skills for Oregon, where there is plenty of agricultural work.
The cake is almost ready. Avila and her students are trying to figure out when to take the cake out but the clock has stopped. “Time stands still in Reality Kitchen,” says Avila, who has spent the entire morning helping people learn how to move forward.