There are few places more special to Gabriela Malkomes and her family than the kitchen. Just 5-years-old, she loves to help her parents cook.
“It’s a lot of fun," said Luciana Malkomes, Gabby's mother. "We love to cook and eat. We can spend time together. We can learn things together.”
So when her mom found out about a kid's cooking contest that Uncle Ben's rice was putting on, she thought it might be fun for the two of them to come up with something and enter their recipe.
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And on the off-chance Gabby won, there'd be the added bonus of sending a powerful message.
“I love to show the world how beautiful those kids are, how intelligent she is," said Malkomes. "I really want people to know more about special needs kids.”
Gabby has Down syndrome. While it presents numerous challenges for her and her family, confidence in the kitchen is not one of them.
"Gabby, go, go!" the kindergartner will often say as she's adding ingredients or mixing them together.
For the "Ben's Beginners" contest, they created a peanut butter rice flan dessert. Not long after they submitted their recipe, they found out she was a finalist.
"And we had to vote for Gabby," said Rebecca Stephens, principal at Martha Reid Leadership Academy, where Gabby goes to school. "We put it out there on our social media and we let everybody know to go vote for her. Our kids were involved, our parents, our community, our central office staff -- I had so many people say we're voting for Gabby."
The weeks passed and neither the school nor the Malkomes family heard anything.
"[Luciana] came up to me around Veterans Day and said we haven't heard from Uncle Ben's yet and so I don't think we won," Stephens. "Well that day I got a phone call from Uncle Ben's and they asked if we would help them surprise Gabby and her family on Dec. 5."
Tuesday morning, the school held an assembly and invited the Malkomes family to attend.
"I thought it was just something about the Leadership Academy," said Malkomes. "It was a big surprise. I never expected that."
But by the time an Uncle Ben's representative came to the front of the gym and started talking about a cooking contest, she put two and two together. While tears started running down her cheeks, a smile a mile wide appeared on Gabby's face.
“I can’t describe how happy I am," said Malkomes. "I just have no words. It’s hard to talk right now because I’m so shocked.”
Uncle Ben's gave Gabby and her family a check for $15,000. They also gave Martha Reid Leadership Academy $30,000 to help makeover their cafeteria.
“We have a great cafeteria, but we’re going to be able to add some things that give the kids an opportunity to look at nutrition differently," said Stephens.
Malkomes said she hopes Gabby's big win will serve as an inspiration to other special needs kids and their families.
And as for Gabby, she's eager to go home and start working on new recipes.