Al Tholen was in his gooey, sticky element Tuesday morning, and wrist deep and so were the aspiring cooks in his Big Al's Bakers skills class at Camp Watcha-Wanna-Do.
The summer camp began Sunday and continues through Friday for area children 7 years through high school graduation age who are undergoing cancer treatment or who are cancer survivors. The program takes place at the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne's Camp Potawotami near South Milford, about an hour north of Fort Wayne.
All children attend for free, and they are allowed to bring a sibling, said Carmen DeBruce, Camp Watcha-Wanna-Do president and one of the Lutheran Health Network nurses who staff the camp's medical clinic. About 120 youngsters from Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana are participating this year.
"It's phenomenal how the community comes together to provide this," DeBruce said of the many donations that make the program possible.
In addition to allowing youngsters to have a traditional summer camp experience, attending the camp also provides peer support, DeBruce said. Young cancer patients can talk with other youngsters about their treatment experience.
They also meet survivors, who offer current cancer patients hope that they, too, can survive their treatment, DeBruce added.
A portion of each day is devoted to skills classes, in which youngsters can learn about or enjoy activities such as archery, baking, crafts, hiking, horseback riding and a high-ropes course.
In the Big Al's Bakers class, Tholen emphasizes fun and food.
In keeping with this year's camp theme of Superheroes, Tholen planned to have his first group of campers Tuesday mix up Rubber Band Man Gooey Bars, which his bakers would serve to other campers, counselors and staff as dessert at that evening's dinner.
He planned to have his second skills class Tuesday whip up Wonder Woman Power Pillows for that evening's snack.
Tholen, the corporate executive chef for Casa restaurants in Fort Wayne, got involved with Camp Watcha-Wanna-Do several years ago when his boss, Jim Casaburo, asked him for help with the dinner that Casa was sponsoring at the camp.
"An hour after I got there, I knew something special was going on," Tholen said.
The Fort Wayne native now has served on the camp board of directors for about four years.
About the second year he helped plan youth activities during camp, "I thought, I bet they would enjoy getting their hands dirty and learning a little about baking." He was right.
His Big Al's Bakers classes take place in the lodge dining room.
Tholen, who also had help from four camp volunteers, first had his students put on white aprons and small chef hats they had decorated previously with their names and "Big Al's Bakers." Then they slipped on latex gloves and gathered in two groups of four and two pairs of two around huge metal mixing bowls on dining tables.
Tholen first tossed each group a huge rectangle of butter, which they tried to catch in the bowl. After instructing them to unwrap the butter and put it in the bowl, he floated from team to team dumping in brown sugar, white sugar, chocolate chips, flour and other ingredients, all the while teasing and having fun with the kids.
Smiles, frequent cries of "Eww!" and comments like, "This is squishy," filled the room as his bakers hand-mixed the cookie batter.
After asking each team to coat a large baking pan with no-stick spray, Tholen dumped a big pile of dark brown brownie batter on each pan.
Youngsters used spoons to spread the brownie batter over the entire baking pan. Then Tholen had them use the spoons to scoop up clumps of cookie batter and drop them on top of the brownie batter.
"It's just amazing the impact the little bit of time you spend with them has," Tholen said.
Two years ago, for example, a 6-year-old boy who was really sick looked up to him, wiggled his finger to motion Tholen to bend down and then gave him a big hug, saying, "Thank you so much."
That's the kind of recipe Tholen wants to make every year.