Gracious Graduates Toast to Good Life

August 7, 2007

TAMPA – Gabriel Belcher, 10, straightened his white gloves and giddily stepped into Donatello restaurant Friday evening. It was his first time at a fancy restaurant, and he stopped to adjust his eyes to the dim lighting.
‘Why are there no woman waiters?’ he asked.

Having undergone a full makeover and months of training, Gabriel and nine classmates were celebrating their etiquette school graduation.

But this was also a test. The children would have to put their manners and dining skills to use at one of the city’s finest restaurants.

The course is offered by It’s All About Kids Inc., a nonprofit organization that mentors at-risk, inner-city children in etiquette and literacy. They learn the importance of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They learn how to use a steak knife, how to properly answer the telephone and how to ask rather than yank a toy from someone.

‘Good manners are not automatic; they are taught,’ program director Wanda DeLaRosa said. ‘Manners are not just about which fork to use; they are about fostering respectfulness and teaching responsibility.’

The children, hidden by the tall menus propped open on their laps, perused a long list of Italian delicacies. Druquevius Williams, 9, said she recognized ravioli and spaghetti, but what was tortellini? And linguine?

They peered over their menus to watch the tuxedoed waiters encircle their table, addressing them as ‘Signor’ and ‘Signora.’

First came bread and butter. Then bruschetta. Then fried cheese with tomato sauce.

‘May I have …?’ young voices quietly asked.

‘Please pass …’

‘Thank you!’

When DeLaRosa spoke, the table became dead silent. She showed them what to do with the lemon on their water glasses. The children labored over their citrus, carefully squeezing and plopping, like lab scientists dripping acid into a beaker.

A Welcome From Restaurateur

Restaurant owner Alessandra Tiozzo, who was donating the four-course meal, came out to greet her young guests. She walked around the table, stooping down to welcome each child.

They straightened their backs – and there was not an elbow to be found on the tabletop.

Tiozzo praised their new outfits, a gift from Macy’s, and said she wants to sponsor more dinners for the etiquette class.

‘What they’re doing is very important,’ she said. ‘Good manners don’t exist anymore. Some people look proud to be impolite. When people are impolite … it leaves an impression.’

Gabriel turned to Destiny Jackson, 5, and encouraged her to try a mozzarella stick, then turned back to his 12-ounce Porterhouse. He picked up his steak knife and deftly sliced into the meat with such gusto, he rocked the table.

‘Remember what we learned in class,’ an assistant teacher reminded him. ‘To cut the food without making noise.’

‘This is good!’ he said, and got his classmates to lift their glasses in a toast ‘to the good life.’

As the children ate, they occasionally littered the floor with pink napkins and flung their gloves over the back of their chairs. One boy, desperate for a waiter’s attention, momentarily abandoned decorum and waved his arms in the air. But for most of the night, these children were the paradigm of good manners.

After the main course, each received a framed certificate.

‘I’m going to tell them my parents they have cute pictures and cute tables and the waiters are handsome,’ Druquevius said, ‘and that we had a lot of food we never had before.’

Parents Take Notice Of Changes

Students didn’t take the class seriously at first, said DeLaRosa’s daughter, Jennifer, who helped teach it. But they became motivated when parents offered positive reinforcement.

Derrick Jackson, 11, said his mother noticed the changes in him immediately.

‘She was impressed by my manners at the table,’ he said. ‘I say ‘thank you’ at the table, and I pray now. I pray for things to get better because, at my house, we don’t have a lot of money.’

Decadent slices of chocolate mousse cake, with a swirl of raspberry sauce and a puff of whipped cream, capped the meal. Showing remarkable restraint, the kids delicately dipped their forks into six layers of chocolate goodness.

The etiquette class is offered quarterly; cost varies depending on the students’ circumstances. The mentoring program runs twice a week.

‘I believe that this sets them up for their future,’ DeLaRosa said. ‘It opens up doors, it teaches them skills, and it builds their self-esteem.’

People interested in either participating in or helping out with It’s All About Kids Inc. may call (813) 269-4402.

Deborah Meron can be reached at (813) 259-7606 or dmeron@tampatrib.com.

"It's better to prepare a life than to repair a life."