Amanda Ware and Janie Schave officially donned the white coats that chefs wear, Saturday afternoon at the Fortin Culinary Center.

The two 23-year-old Billings women are the first graduating class of the downtown culinary center, located on the second floor of the Billings Food Bank. They took part in a short graduation ceremony that drew friends and family.

Completing the course required 14 weeks of training at the center and a two-week externship to practice what they'd learned. Although 18 students started, only Ware and Schave made it all the way through, said Sheryle Shandy, executive director of the food bank.

"They were told they would have to make a commitment to be here every day and to do the work, and these girls have gone over and above what we anticipated they would do," Shandy said. "It may look like a small class, but to these girls and to the Billings Food Bank, it's really big."

Shandy said the culinary center has been a longtime dream for the food bank, to help make people more self-sufficient, rather than just handing out food on an emergency basis.

The program is a partnership between the food bank and the Montana State University Billings downtown campus. Funding for the culinary center came from the Fortin Foundation.

Chef Cynthia Ware -- no relation to Amanda --  trained the two students and praised their commitment to sticking with the program.

"Janie and Amanda found ways of getting around their roadblocks," Ware said. "And what it's given them is a means of doing the same for the rest of their lives."

As the two women slipped into the embroidered white coats they received as gifts, Ware told them the heavy white coats will protect them as they work. But the coats also serve another purpose.

"If you put on a uniform, people think you know something," she said with a smile. "So now it's official. You really do know something. You have your own coats."

For Ware, a single mother of a 4-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, the course has given her both a trade and a sense of accomplishment.

"It's a really good self-esteem booster," she said. "The class gave me the confidence to go out and say I know I can do this."

Throughout the course, she built on skills that she learned, from chopping ingredients to making sauces, to meal planning and food nutrition. Her favorite part was learning how to double and triple recipes. The hardest was learning how to use a knife.

"I cut off a quarter of my index finger on my left hand and I had to go to the hospital," she said. "I was very happy to come back and finish the class. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to, but I did."

Ware praised her teacher, Chef Ware, for her patience in sharing her knowledge with the two young women.

"She's very supportive," Ware said. "If you mess up, she doesn't automatically jump on you. And if you're having a hard time, she'll show you again."

At the end of the ceremony, Program Coordinator Kathy Whittenberger said it was her honor "to travel with these girls in what has truly been a journey."

"My hope is that we have taught you many things that you can take as you go forward because you have indeed taught us many things," she said. "And we hope graduating today and finishing the class is a dream come true because our dream is your success."