FORT MADISON — Growing up in Sri Lanka, Kumar Wickramasingha was exposed to an education culture not seen in the United States. Instead of having children go to school, many made their way to education centers to work on advancing their skills in specific areas.
“You see billboards for different teachers. One will be promoting one for math and another history,” Wickramasingha said.
When he made his way to the U.S. in 1986 and stayed in Fort Madison, he noticed rather quickly the same educational atmosphere wasn’t to be found here. But he was thankful to be associated with people who wanted to make sure he got an education. He lived with Jean and George Alton, and they made sure he got the education he wanted to receive while in the U.S.
“They knew I wanted to get an education, so they took me to Southeastern Community College, where I learned English and took more classes,” he said.
The Hawk Eye reports that Wickramasingha went on to a career in culinary arts, owning Alpha’s on the Riverfront in Fort Madison before taking a job with Sunnybrook Senior Living.
Over the years, he still noticed no place for children to go after school to study outside of the library or the children’s own homes. About a year ago, he decided to change that by bringing together education and his love for food.
“This community has given me so many opportunities, I wanted to give something back,” Wickramasingha said.
He discussed his idea with Fort Madison high school teachers Brent Zirkel and Andrew Troxel, and the idea for the Elliott Test Kitchen was born. The Test Kitchen Education foundation was formed to start collecting donations to get the program up and running, and a board overseas it. The test kitchen is named after James T. Elliott IV, who was a successful businessman who taught mathematics early in his career. He donated enough money to make the test kitchen possible in Fort Madison.
The three worked on creating an area for students to go to after school to get help with their homework and studies, while also learning basic cooking skills.
“I’m a passionate person, so when he told me about this I was for it. We have amazing young people, and I wanted to give them a place to shine,” Zirkel said.
In October, they opened the kitchen to be that place for junior- and senior-high school students in the Fort Madison, Holy Trinity and Central Lee schools.
“This is meant to be a safe haven where students go to learn about cooking and get homework done,” Wickramasingha said.
Wickramasingha is in charge of the food side, while Zirkel and Troxel plan the education side. The two teachers have rounded up more than 30 area teachers to come in rotation to help students with their homework and class prep.
“I’ve been overseas, and I’ve seen places like this in other countries. We saw a need for this in our community,” Zirkel said.
Applications to be part of the program are available through the counseling offices at each school. Once those are submitted and approved, students can start signing up for nights to attend.
The students follow a routine when they come in. They arrive at about 3:30 p.m., and for the first half hour, they decompress from school in the area set up to feel like a kitchen and living room. Music is played, and a relaxed environment is created. At 4 p.m., the music is turned off and the students start to work on homework, class projects, or ACT or SAT prep.
“We’ve also signed up for a program called MOOC, where high school students can try out college level courses,” Zirkel said.
The program signs up people to take the ACT their junior or senior year. Wickramasingha learned fewer than 30 students at Fort Madison High school in their junior and senior years have taken the ACT to get into college.
Currently, the program sees five to 10 students a night, but the organizers are hoping to someday cater to 15 students nightly. Students signed up for the program don’t have to attend every day. In fact, Troxel encourages people to look online for the rotation of teacher volunteers on the program’s website at tkef.org.
“We have a system that shows when certain teachers will be here, so if you know you need help in social studies, you can sign up for the days the social studies teachers will be here,” Troxel said.
When a student is admitted into the program, they’ll be given a password to access the scheduling section of the website. From there, students can sign up for days to attend and have 24 hours to cancel any session they signed up for.
“We know they have a lot going on in their lives,” Troxel said.
While Troxel, Zirkel and Wickramasingha have been working on the project the longest, the volunteers and donations are what is making it possible.
Fred Knoch, a volunteer cook for the program, sees the test kitchen as a way to give back.
“It gives the kids a little exposure to cooking, and it’s a safe environment,” Knoch said.
His volunteer position isn’t too hard either. Wickramasingha has a plan for the meals ahead of time, and Knoch prepares the food given to him.
“I have (the students) do basic prep work. Getting into cooking a little at a time,” Knoch said.
About 5:30 p.m., after an hour and half of studying is completed, it’s time to eat a meal created partially by volunteers, partially by students.
“It’s almost got a Thanksgiving feel. We all sit at one large table together and eat,” Troxel said.
Once dinner is over, parents come to pick up the students.
“If she needs help it’s here, and the cooking side gives her extra incentive,” said Nicole Vrandenburg, who brings her daughter, Holy Trinity seventh-grader Maya Vrandenburg, to the kitchen.
Fort Madison sophomore Mercedee Doty saw the program as a way to tap into the field she wants to go into.
“I want to go into culinary so this helps with that,” Doty said.
Doty also appreciates feeling like she’s at home when she comes in, which is something the program is striving to achieve.
“A lot of kids don’t have this stability, to be able to come home and get their homework done, and be in a safe environment after school,” Troxel said.
The program runs exclusively on donations. There is no registration fee to participate.
“I’m not selling a product. This is about education,” Wickramasingha said.
The Elliott Test Kitchen is open any day schools are open, and organizers are hoping by next summer, the program has enough support to be open throughout the summer for students in summer school or programs to continue working.