NORWALK – An adventurous kid by nature, Ken Cook was always on his bike.
Cook recalls having to always wait for one his uncles to come over if his bike ever broke down -- and for a kid, it felt like an eternity.
His mom suggested he go and ask the old man down the street -- who had the endless toolbox and the eternally open garage -- if he could fix it for him.
The old, grumpy man down the street surprisingly agreed to fixing little Kenny’s bike, though they had never even exchanged a neighborly smile or nod.
The next time something broke, old man Wendell refused to fix it for him. But instead, he agreed to show Cook how to fix his own bike.
Wendell helped Cook fix his bike, but most importantly taught him the virtue of paying it forward.
Today, Cook has a lot to be proud of. The army veteran and father of two young boys has been named one of Fender Bender Magazine’s Most Influential Teachers for his great work in the community, both inside and out of the classroom. He has also put Norwalk High School on the map as one of the best automotive programs in the nation, winning back-to-back SkillsUSA’s Model of Excellence awards for 2015-2016.
He clocks in at Norwalk High a little before 8 a.m. everyday then he oversees an after school collision repair center at Cerritos Community College from 4-6 p.m. He understands his students need a positive male role model, self confidence and skills that can open doors to a career. His program provides students with all of that and so much more.
“We don’t build cars; we build people,” said Cook as he takes a moment to proudly reflect on some of his most memorable student success stories from over the years.
The program is fully inclusive by design because Cook remembers growing up in a time when high school was less of a sanctuary and more of a penitentiary for students like him, who would much rather work with their hands than take a standardized test.
While 41 percent of the students enrolled in the collision repair program at Norwalk High have a range of special needs, each student brings a special attribute to the team. Cook puts each in a position to succeed.
One of the big projects for last year’s collision repair class was to convert a trailer into a fully functioning mobile BBQ equipped with a grill large enough for two people, a sink, and a refrigerator.
Last Thursday, Cook’s class took the BBQ trailer out for a spin and showed off their grilling skills along with the culinary program. The students set up outside of Lowe’s in Norwalk serving up free tacos for the community from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Last year’s trailer was such a success, Cook is building a new and improved mobile BBQ trailer this year but this time with twice the grill space and a custom paint job. The class is currently finishing the trailer, which will be complete within the next few weeks, said Cook.
By helping kids in the neighborhood however he can, Cook hopes to steer the students in the right direction just as Wendell did decades earlier for him.
A complete stranger taking the time to teach him how to fix his bike made such a lasting impact on Cook’s life that he in fact named his firstborn son Wendel (dropping the extra ‘L’).
Cook and his class now makes custom bikes for students with special needs in the community who don’t have the means to afford them. Cook hopes to teach the next generation of little Kenny’s to pass on the love of fixing things.