Perfect recipe for children
They say the best way to learn a language is to use it in practical ways, and Towngas volunteers are proving the point. Since 2006, they have been running a 'cooking for fun' programme which gives youngsters basic instruction in English through games and conversation, and then lets them try their hand at simple recipes that use the new vocabulary.
'With the younger kids, we might start with a guessing game where I say the colour and shape of a fruit and they have to come up with the name,' says Jacqueline Hui Ting-yan, who helped set up the programme and who, at other times, is an engineer looking after high-pressure pipelines for the company's systems maintenance section. 'Then I might give them a dish, and they would have to pick out the right ingredients in English or call out the right sequence for cooking them.'
Classes usually take place over four consecutive Saturdays and are intended for Primary 1 to 6 children from less privileged families. The time is split roughly 50/50 between games and cooking activities. These can involve preparing snacks, decorating cakes or wrapping dumplings, tasks that also provide a chance to talk about tastes and table manners.
Generally, the first three sessions are held at different family service centres around Hong Kong, with the final one at the Towngas cooking centre in Causeway Bay. A full-time instructor demonstrates the morning's recipes, before the children - each under the watchful eye of a volunteer assistant - put their culinary skills to the test. 'We let them do as much as possible, but are obviously very careful about using knives,' Hui says. 'We want them to enjoy themselves and to have something to take home and share with their families.'
The programme, which is administered with help from the Social Welfare Department and various non-governmental organisations with contacts in the community, has been a big hit. To date, more than 2,200 children have taken part and there has been no shortage of volunteers. Some are Towngas staff, others are friends and family members, and a pool of company customers are also ready to step in whenever required.
'At the beginning there was nothing, but we came up with the teaching menus and the other materials, and I had a special training class for teaching English using drama and games,' Hui says.
'I love being with the kids and I can say my own cooking skills have also improved a lot.'
Putting the finishing touches to a dish of tomato fettucine in cream sauce with porcini mushrooms and bacon, seven-year-old Kit-ying was similarly enthusiastic. Dressed for the occasion in a white hat and a specially designed apron, she was quick to give the programme two thumbs up. 'I love the games and being able to cook with my friends,' she says. 'It is something I'm not allowed to do at home.'
All children who participate get a certificate at the end of the course
The programme won recognition as best corporate volunteer service project in 2008
If necessary, Towngas lays on special transportation for children
By deliberately creating a relaxed atmosphere, the children are more willing to speak up