Fillmore Central elementary students decorated cakes with Jo Szuch for Mother's Day this year. Szuch is the owner of The Sweet Stop and Sandwich Shoppe in Preston. COURTESY OF FILLMORE CENTRAL
Fillmore Central elementary students decorated cakes with Jo Szuch for Mother's Day this year. Szuch is the owner of The Sweet Stop and Sandwich Shoppe in Preston. COURTESY OF FILLMORE CENTRAL
Everybody likes food. Some like sauerkraut and lutefisk and others have a bit more of a sweet tooth. More often than not, children favor the sweet tooth. So when kids at Fillmore Central have the opportunity to get down and dirty decorating their own sweet treats, well, let's just say it can get a little messy.

Jo Szuch of The Sweet Stop and Sandwich Shoppe in Preston often provides the children with the chance to try their own hand at decorating, either cookies or small cakes. Seven or eight years ago, the community education director at Fillmore Central at the time asked her if she would be willing to work with the young students in a special way. That was to bring items for the children to frost in their own particular style.

At first, the kids simply decorated 12 sugar cookies, in any and all ways and colors they could think of. Eventually to add some more variety to the decorating, Szuch added nine cupcakes to the mix and, most recently, Mother's Day cakes.

"The kids decorate with frosting, sprinkles, chocolate chips, M&Ms and marshmallows. I provide examples for them to follow, but I want to give them a chance to express themselves creatively," Szuch stated.

Up until this year, decorating the treats happened four times a school year, one for the major holidays like Halloween, Christmas and Valentines Day. However, Angi Kaase, the current director of Fillmore Central's Community Education program, had expressed the desire to incorporate more of these opportunities into the school year with the goal of one decorating session per month.

"We have decorated at the school one day every month since February," Szuch commented. "It is a lot of work to prepare for these days, but I hope I could handle it once a month. My concern for the kids is if they get bored doing this if they do it too much."

A great deal of time does go into one of these days for Szuch. Simply making the cookies calls for six or seven hours time to make the cookies and frosting and fill the frosting bags and sprinkle containers. On top of that is packaging the items up for transportation. Then, of course, there is setting things up the day of the activity and cleaning up after the creative mess.

"It is a full day of work to prepare for the class," she said.

Once everything is brought to the school, the ingredients for decorating and packaging are placed on the tables in such a way as to limit the messiness of the project at each child's place.

"We set the cookies or cupcakes at every place along with a variety of colors and sprinkles. I want the kids to have some decision-making power and not blindly follow what I tell them. I like to give them choices," she added.

Among those who help at the school are employees at the Sweet Stop, volunteers and high school students who are coming to help the community.

So as to not distract from school hours, the children decorate for 45 minutes after school from 3:15 to 4 p.m. Those who participate are from kindergarten to sixth grade, but "fifth and sixth graders are not as involved any more since they are in other activities too," Szuch related.

But how do the younger kids enjoy the decorating?

"They love it or at least they love frosting and sprinkles. They seem happy when they are there and they get to be a little louder. It is fun to get dirty with frosting and make faces and shapes with it," Szuch expressed.

Part of the fun comes from seeing and hearing ideas from the volunteers. "Jo is so good with the kids and gets their attention," Kaase explained about the activity. "But no matter who comes to help, whether it is her husband, daughter or employees, it's a package deal. They give ideas to the kids and keep them smiling and laughing."

The class usually varies between 20 and 30 children. Because each child gets 12 cookies to decorate, they do need to sign up for it so Szuch bakes the right number for everyone. It also costs a little money for the children to participate, in order to help to pay for the ingredients. However, there are sometimes last minute additions, so Szuch said she does bake a little extra anyway.

The largest class she has ever had was around 45 students. "We never had such a large class before. We had to call in high school students to help us and put a call out to some teachers to come and help," she stated.

Szuch sees good, positive feedback on this as the same kids come back over and over. "I love to see what they can come up with on their own and to watch them grow over the years," she said.

Once the kids have decorated their cookies or cupcakes, they are free to take them home. Since the frosting does not always dry fast, Szuch found the best way to move the cookies around is in a pizza box. It limits the mess and gives the cookies time to dry.

"No matter if it's cupcakes, cake or cookies, they are all sweet, they're fun, and the cafeteria becomes a decorating sensation. The kids get to be so creative in this class and they love sharing their ideas with others in the class, the volunteers and, of course, their families afterwards. It is a youth enrichment opportunity to do something they cannot do in the classroom or sometimes even at home," Kaase commented.

"This activity gives the kids a creative outlet. Many are able to do this at home, but some parents don't have the time or energy to make sugar cookies. This gives them a chance to do something different," Szuch related.

No matter how old a person is or who they are, education does not stop. Learning new things is a part of life. But some of the basics like how to develop relationships or how to keep from passing on colds need to be reemphasized.

"We try to teach the kids food safety like washing their hands after touching their mouths, especially during the cold season in the winter months. We don't want to spread the colds," Kaase said.

"I feel different youth development programs can positively impact school performance in kids," she added. "I really see how these classes improve children's social development and their relationships with adults and their peers. The kids are all attending as a group and having fun. It doesn't matter if they are in kindergarten or sixth grade, they are all having fun together."

Because of the enormity of other commitments Szuch has, these decorating sessions will not continue during the summer, but she promises she will be back at it next fall.