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Alaiedon Township — Kelsey Parsons had taken a pass on some extra college money, but ended up richer than she could have imagined.

The Dansville High School senior opted not to join the culinary team at the Capital Area Career Center in a state-level competition. Instead, she formed her own team and coached it to a fourth-place finish.

And she did it with three special needs students — one has cerebral palsy, two have autism, and none had cooked before. It was a high-pressure event. The state’s most talented teens spend months practicing the same menu item just to get it right on that one day.

Parsons noticed the looks they were getting.

“When we walked in people were like, ‘That’s an insult to this program,’ ” Parsons said. “They came through, and I said, ‘I just proved all of you people wrong.’

Her team not only finished fourth, but the students also received a standing ovation. Each member of the team, including Parsons, earned $2,500. The career center’s actual team, for which 20 culinary students had to try out, finished just ahead of them in third place.

It’s a two-year certification program, called ProStart. The center is run through the Michigan Restaurant Association.

After talking to her instructor, Corbett Day, Parsons decided to create her own team of special needs students for the event in March in Lansing.

Parsons put together a group that consisted of Erayna Greenwood, an Everett High School junior with cerebral palsy, and Sara Brooks and Jordan Cooper, who have autism. Greenwood is in the career center’s culinary program. Brooks and Cooper are in the school-to-work program.

“I was their mentor and coach,” Parsons said. “Instead of taking the four best chefs in the classroom, I wanted to take three students and make them the best.”

Another culinary student was given the fourth spot. That was Kelsea Wulff, a Leslie High School senior.

The team held on, and the fourth-place finish, out of 17 teams, impressed everyone.

Nic Bond, who has Brooks and Cooper as students in the school to work program, said their showing “surpassed even my greatest, wildest expectation.”

“They’re fantastic students,” he said. “They’re definitely two of the types that are willing to, and want to try, something new and just needed the chance to be able to do it.

“And we saw the results.”

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