United Way At Work
The questions chef Israel Santiago is throwing out at his class this particular Tuesday morning are tough, but his culinary students don’t seem to be rattled. As a group, they’re consistently homing in on the right answers. Maybe you didn’t know this, but the correct internal temperature for a piece of pork tenderloin and a pork kebab are not the same. The students, however, do know that.
“We have a huge amount of knowledge,” says student Beth Watler, “we’ve learned 12 to 14 different cuisines in just 14 weeks.” Watler is one of a dozen students enrolled in the Second Harvest Culinary Training Program. She’s articulate, easy-going and friendly. She’s also homeless. When the program launched in 2013, Heart of Florida United Way stepped forward with a $234,000 commitment to be spread over three years. Watler is part of the fifth class to graduate the program, which is doing much more than cultivating culinarians. It’s giving people a vital second chance at a career through 100 percent job placement.
One glance at the class makes it clear this is not a traditional culinary program. Almost all of the students are over 40. They’ve been battling chronic unemployment and many of them are homeless.At 57 years old, Watler is training for a job for the first time in her life. Her husband of 32 years was a college professor and she was a stay at home mom to their seven children. But then Watler’s husband lost his job. Initially, they were well set and had enough assets to allow them to get through six years of joblessness. But eventually they exhausted all of their resources. They now live at Orlando Rescue Mission with their two youngest children, ages 12 and 17.
“We’ve been there for about a year and a half, but we’re still not self-sufficient,” she says. She’s confident graduating from this program will change that because she will be matched to a job that will pay better than minimum wage. Watler is trying to enter the workforce for the first time while Victor Hernandez is trying to return to it.
“For me to come here is a new beginning. It’s incredible. I feel born again,” says culinary student Victor Hernandez. One glance at the class makes it clear this is not a traditional culinary program. Almost all of the students are over 40. They’ve been battling chronic unemployment and many of them are homeless.
A native of the Dominican Republic, he lost his job of 14 years. Ironically, he’d been volunteering at Second Harvest through his church for a year without knowing about the Culinary Training Program. He learned about it when he decided to approach Second Harvest for a job. He says it’s already making a huge difference for him.
“Every day they teach you life skills, because after you’ve been out of work for so long, you feel worthless. When you come here, you feel the energy, you feel you can do it,” he says. He feels well suited to the restaurant industry, having owned a small café in the Dominican, and plans to work his way up to a management position.
Knowing that you’ll graduate with a job is a big confidence booster, but students also get jobs on their own merit. Prior to graduation, they’ll all do training interviews with the likes of Walt Disney World’s Scott Hunnel and Tim Keating, two of the area’s most high profile and accomplished chefs. Chef Santiago says several of his students have been impressive enough during those interviews to be offered positions on the spot. Others have landed jobs with Marriott, Darden and even Seimen’s. In addition to 100 percent job placement, program administrators say it has up to a 75 percent retention rate, which is above the industry standard.
United Way funding is part of what allows these students to take this course at no charge. And after 14 short weeks, they’ll be on the job and on a path to financial stability. When they don their first toque, they’ll be executing United Way’s own recipe for success by taking our three main ingredients, education, income and health, and blending them together for a lifetime of sustenance.