DETROIT — Brandon Zarb has a passion for food and culinary arts. He's a top chef who went from leading two of metro Detroit's busiest restaurants, Public House and Imperial, to the classroom.
Zarb started working as a culinary paraprofessional educator at Rising Stars Academy in Center Line in July. He helps mentor students with intellectual disabilities.
"It was a spontaneous decision. It was kind of an emotional reaction to visiting the school and getting to meet Mark (Prentiss), the founder. It's just so rewarding," says Zarb.
Students at the school are 18 to 26 years old. The goal is to have them gainfully employed within a couple of years. They learn valuable skills in many ways, from classrooms to a student-run restaurant, to sustainably growing greens and herbs with an aquaponics system. They also work in a full-service bake shop. Some of their products are sold in local businesses. The students are also taught workplace and life skills so they can better transition into the community after high school. Mark and Deb Prentiss founded the school six years ago. It started with 26 students and now has 125.
"We label everyone today in society, but we're all people," Mark Prentiss says. "We just need sometimes for people to believe in us. That's the true meaning of it, right?"
Christopher Elle, 22, is a student at Rising Stars Academy. He says chef Mark Prentiss changed his life in many ways.
"He taught me how to be independent ... how to work in the kitchen, cook right, make good recipes," says Elle.
The experience isn't just changing the students' lives, it's also making a difference for their parents and families. Janice Slattery's 19-year-old son Matthew is a student at Rising Stars Academy. He has autism and she says communication continues to be a struggle. However, even though her son just started at the school in August, she says he has changed.
"It's been amazing. He's shown more independence at home. He's doing tasks we didn't know he could do. His confidence level is increasing," the mother says.
Twenty-seven Rising Stars Academy students are now employed. Zarb says being a part of this school's staff is incredibly rewarding.
"Society kind of in a sense turns their backs on these students ... to people with these types of disabilities," Zarb says. "They can be as productive members of society as you or me. They just need some extra help and training."
Even though the school receives state aid, it relies heavily on donations. If you'd like to help or if you're a business looking to hire the students, you can visit the academy's website here .