The Vault in Clinton Helps Kids Explore Culinary Careers

Reposted from The Pantagraph

By Connor Wood; Photos by Clay Jackson

CLINTON — Opening a bakery is a popular dream for kids in The Vault’s culinary career exploration class held this past week (June 20-24, 2022).

Connie Unruh, treasurer and a volunteer with the organization, said she knew at least a few of the kids hoped to have their own bakery someday. The class gave them a chance to learn how culinary businesses work, from what it takes to run an operation to some of the kitchen skills they’d need to get into the industry.

The Vault is a community space for students in sixth through 12th grades, located on the square in Clinton. It provides events, adult mentorship and services like tutoring, as well as giving kids space where they can meet up with friends and make new ones.

Owen Rexshell, 14, is already known in the community for his pies, Unruh said.

Rexshell, who will begin his freshman year this fall, has been going to The Vault since he was in sixth grade. He also volunteers at the café on site, which is open for the kids who are visiting.

“It’s really nice,” he said. “Yeah, we don’t get paid, but it teaches us a lot about work ethic, and how to treat customers.”

Skylea Hunter, 14, writes messages on place mats for the lunch created on Friday during Envision U Culinary Arts Camp at The Vault.

Cadence Wyatt, 12, also volunteers at the café. She said it is fun, but can get stressful during the school year when there are more customers. Like Rexshell, she said she would like to open a bakery someday, inspired in part by a friend of her mother who runs a bakery business out of her home.

Campers were working Friday morning to put together an appreciation luncheon for The Vault’s supporters, helped by pastor and chef Paul Stroup, who preaches at Clinton Presbyterian Church.

Earlier in the week, the kids visited Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican restaurant in town, and made breakfast quesadillas. They also visited Dairy Queen to learn what it’s like to own a fast-food franchise and to try their hands at making their own soft-serve cones.

“They didn’t realize how hard it is to get that little twist and the curl at the top,” Unruh said.

Layne Miller, 13, said students learned a lot of safety skills, throughout the week, as well as soft skills for how to run a business.“We learned how to be a good boss and everything, how to stay calm in sticky situations,” he said.

Executive chef Paul Stroup, left, works with Cadence Wyatt, and Madison Waddell to create lunch on Friday during Envision U Culinary Arts Camp at The Vault.

A Taco Bowl Tuesday event during the culinary week brought in around $700 for the organization, Unruh said.

Founder, and now community connections coordinator, Michelle Witske said The Vault offers its programming for free, adding it could not exist without support from the community. The Vault opened in 2018 and, along with the summer career camps, offers services like tutoring, as well as times when kids can come just to hang out.

“It’s just fun and I get to hang out with friends,” Layne said.

The goal is to support students and give them opportunities so they don’t just spend all their time on their phones or playing video games, Witske said. She hopes it helps students going through mental health troubles, something she said has been on the rise visibly in the Clinton community.

The adult mentors at The Vault are all trained in mental health first aid, she said. If they notice something wrong, they can then refer the student and their family to mental health professionals.

Executive chef Paul Stroup, left, works with Brianna Gundy to mix items for chicken salad on Friday during Envision U Culinary Arts Camp at The Vault.

At the same time, she wants The Vault to be a place where kids can learn more about themselves and what they want to do with their lives. The “Envision U Career Camp Weeks” are a part of that, she said.
“We give them as many opportunities as we can for them to discover who they are,” she said.

The camps let students be more intentional about what they plan to do after high school, Unruh said.

Other camps this summer include construction and trades, theater arts and law enforcement.

“Sometimes we stumble into a career, and sometimes we choose a career,” she said.

She hopes The Vault helps equip kids with the knowledge and skills they need to choose the career that will be best for them.

The Vault is open to students in sixth through 12th grades, with more information and the form to sign up at

Illinois Prairie Community Foundation awarded a 2022 IPCF General Grant to the Vault Community Center for its Golden Gears Café Small Business Leadership Program.

If you would like to help fund more programs like this in the community, donate online to IPCF’s Annual Campaign, all of which helps fund the General Grants.

Top Photo Caption: Tayah Simonton-Stephenson cuts chicken for lunch on Friday during Envision U Culinary Arts Camp at The Vault.