News: Stir It Up

Learning to cook for others is recipe for a better life

Jymi Bolden

Zoraida Bermudez makes salad at the Cincinnati Cooks kitchen.

The recipe for success calls for a cup of determination, a sprinkle of self-confidence and a pinch of help from an outside source.

Cincinnati Cooks, a program designed to help people leaving welfare, is about more than getting a job. It's about teaching the skills and building the confidence they need to keep it.

"Welfare to work is nothing more than turning around a decades-old system, a way of life," says Cammy Turner, career coach for the program. "This is about planting a seed that no one can measure. It's intangible — things that we won't be able to put on an Excel worksheet."

Cincinnati Cooks, run by the staff of the FreeStore/FoodBank in collaboration with the Cincinnati Business Incubator, offers classes in food service and the culinary arts under the leadership of a chef/trainer. The program also deals with job and life skills, offers field trips to food service venues and hosts talks by potential employers.

Cincinnati Cooks has graduated three classes of four to six students each since it began June 25, Turner says. Many of the students in the 10-week program have already found employment.

Community kitchens like Cincinnati Cooks exist around the country, according to Turner. Many of the participants are single mothers and some are single fathers, usually in transition from welfare to work.

The goal is not just a job, but a job that will provide the money to support a family.

"It's getting people back to work and making a living wage," Turner says.

Graduates receive a certificate of completion, a chef's uniform, a set of cooking knives and a formal résumé. The program also helps with job leads.

Fernando Scarbriel, the chef/trainer for Cincinnati Cooks, says the participants who complete the program feel they've accomplished something special and have created a future for themselves.

"They don't want to flip hamburgers," Scarbriel says. "They come here to expand their culinary art technique."

Graduates often want to continue their training, so Cincinnati Cooks tries to help them enroll in classes to receive college credits.

The program discusses how to stay focused on goals and how to maintain a steady work history.

"A lot of them haven't been into a regimented, structured work environment," Scarbriel says. "Most of them haven't really had steady employment."

Scarbriel is retired from the Army, where he received much of his own training.

"Cooking is my passion," he says.

While Cincinnati Cooks helps participants, they find themselves helping others. So far students have prepared more than 7,000 meals for people in need. All of the meals prepared during training go to homeless shelters or to seven different Kid's Café sites, which provide meals to latchkey children.

"Besides learning a skill, they're learning that at least some kids are not going home hungry tonight," Scarbriel says.

New opportunities on her plate
Zoraida Bermudez, who is originally from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, is a graduate who found the break she needed through Cincinnati Cooks.

When Bermudez came to Cincinnati about 18 months ago to visit one of her sons, she knew no one else in the area. When her son moved out of state, she thought she was alone. With three children left to support and nowhere to turn, she sought help from welfare.

"I didn't know nobody at all," Bermudez says. "I didn't know my way around."

Bermudez started attending life-skills lessons at the YWCA, where she got the boost she needed.

Before moving to Cincinnati, Bermudez had lived in Georgia for six years. There she helped a friend with her catering business, but she was unable to earn the money to support her family as a single mother. At the YWCA, she heard about Cincinnati Cooks, and was soon a student.

Today, Bermudez works as a cook for the YWCA battered women's shelter and is self supporting.

"Cincinnati has been real good to me so I stayed, and that's how I got into Cincinnati Cooks," she says. "It feels so good to come off of assistance, having my own money, giving my kids what they need. Thank God and thanks to Cincinnati Cooks I'm doing just fine now."

Living on public assistance was hard for Bermudez. By the time she paid her bills, there was nothing left to buy her children the things they needed.

"It just wasn't enough for me," she says. "I just wanted to work."

Today Bermudez is able to pay for the uniform her son needs to participate in football and support her daughter's modeling hobby, things she couldn't do on public assistance.

Before Bermudez found the YWCA, she didn't have childcare for her baby, and she couldn't look for a job. The jobs she found would require her to work the night shift and leave her children unattended or required transportation she didn't have.

Bermudez had no high school diploma, she dropped out of school when she was pregnant with her first son.

"Home is not like here, where they push you," she says. "It's just a relaxed atmosphere."

But, she adds, home — the Virgin Islands — was not a place where she was likely to find a job. Although she had been a hairdresser for 15 years, she was not eager to go back to the country where she saw little opportunity to better her life.

"I prayed night and day," Bermudez says. "I cried. I was so confused. I prayed so much, and then everything just started going into place."

She recalls times when her children needed winter coats and she would have to call their schools for help. She also remembers times when she feared the family would have nothing to eat.

"At the last minute something always turned up," she says. "It was a real struggle. Patience is a real virtue, and I just kept telling myself eventually something will come through for you."

The YWCA helped Bermudez earn her GED and offered daycare for her baby. When she graduated from Cincinnati Cooks, she got a job paying triple what she received from welfare.

Today her children are much happier, she says.

"They love that mommy's working," she says.

According to Turner, Bermudez is one example of the positive energy coming from Cincinnati Cooks.

People who complete the training program gain more than a career skill, she says; they gain confidence in themselves. The increased energy carries over into their families.

"It's so contagious," Turner says. "It's incredible. It's a morale booster. It's a confidence booster." ©

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