RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After completing the inaugural RVA C.O.O.K.S. program for at-risk youth, organizers held a graduation ceremony marking the students’ participation today.

The Richmond Police Department partnered with Bon Secours and Chef Sammy Davis Jr., a Food Network star and winner of Chopped Redemption to start the Richmond Culinary Opportunity and Other Keystone Skills (C.O.O.K.S.), an eight-week pilot program aimed to help at-risk youth. The concept was created and launched by Richmond Police Department’s Community Youth and Intervention Services — Community Cares Unit.

Davis used his past as a motivator to assist in this program. He was born to a teenage heroin addict and lost his father to murder. His past led him to find a passion in the kitchen, and he credits the restaurant business with saving his life. Now he plans to do the same for the youth of Richmond he said, and the people he met in the kitchen during his years in the business helped him find his place.

Davis said he hopes that participants in this program found their place as well, while learning kitchen safety, food preparation and presentation, proper food handling and cooking techniques. Outside of the kitchen, students also learned life skills, including drafting a resume, participating in a job interview, conflict resolution and navigating difficult conversations.

During the eight-week program, ten students (half of which were serving time in a local juvenile detention facility) are mentored by Richmond police officers and participate in lessons facilitated by officers that focus on social-emotional learning, conflict resolution and practical de-escalation skills.

“No matter where you came from or what you’ve been through, you can make it. You can be successful,” said Devonti Pettiway, a high school-age program participant.

The graduation ceremony recognized the student participants and marked the transition of those moving into employment opportunities in the culinary field or taking on a student mentor role within the program to support their peers.

“They have a skill that can take them places and open any door for them, a skill can always open a door for you,” Davis said. “With this skill, they can go anywhere on God’s green earth and work.”