Several Stafford County schools recently won a total of $2,825 from a new nonprofit that supports cooking classes for students with autism and other special needs.

April Burch, who founded Cooking Autism Inc. earlier this year, said the nonprofit’s first-ever grants will go toward food and other supplies for cooking classes this school year at Conway and Rocky Run elementary schools, the Heather Empfield Day School, and the Early Childhood Special Education program at the Gari Melchers Complex. Cooking Autism provides lesson plans and visuals for the classes, in addition to easy-to-follow, extensively illustrated recipes for foods such as fruit smoothies, spaghetti, tacos, strawberry shortcake, peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and mashed potatoes.

Conway received the largest award of $1,250, followed by $825 for the Heather Empfield Day School and $375 apiece for Rocky Run Elementary School and the Gari Melchers Complex. The cooking classes will be offered at nine classrooms in those schools, and students will prepare a different meal each week.

The classes improve students’ communication and fine-motor skills and teach them to follow step-by-step directions, Burch said.

“It’s basically giving children the tools that they need to be able to communicate and make decisions about what they desire and to be able to use these tools to grow,” she said.

Burch and her husband, Morgan, have two sons—Hunter and Daniel—who are students in Conway Elementary’s special education autism program, which started the cooking classes several years ago. In October, Burch won a three-year lease on a new Nissan Rogue, but asked the contest organizer, Pohanka Nissan, to contribute to Conway’s autism program instead.

Tim Pohanka, the dealership’s managing partner, donated $5,000 to the school. Burch said Pohanka also contributed more money to Cooking Autism after her family established the nonprofit in May.

One of her sons used to eat only five foods: McDonald’s french fries and chicken nuggets and specific brands of fish sticks, rice and yogurt. But he’s now up to 20 or so foods, thanks to the cooking program, which lets him feel the textures of different ingredients. “Because they’re using their hands to make their own food, they generally will try [it],” Burch explained.

The nonprofit will start accepting applications for its next round of grants on Nov. 1. Applications are open to all schools, not just those in Stafford.

For more information on the nonprofit, visit

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Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

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