Graduation serves up tender moments for culinary students

MILFORD — Hearty tears mixed with raw emotions last week during the Food Bank of Delaware’s twelfth graduation ceremony.

Ten students from around the area proudly stood in front of friends, family members, supporters, mentors and even new bosses as they bubbled with excitement over their new-found love of cooking and what some may say are rare accomplishments.

Patricia Beebe, president and CEO of the Food Bank of Delaware, said attending graduation ceremonies for the culinary program is always a “ highpoint of the food bank family.”

She added, “We are the only food bank in the nation to have two culinary programs. We were the first in the nation to have the first one in Newark.”

Seven of the newest graduates are already working in culinary jobs. The success, according to Dover Downs’ Executive Chef Quinn McCord, is not just because of the food bank’s notoriety. It falls back on the instruction of the candidates.

Dover Downs currently employs six of the seven graduates boasting jobs from the most recent class of Milford graduates.

“We have a great relationship. It’s w in-win for everybody,” Chef McCord said. “I know that they’re taking ServSafe. That’s huge. These guys come here with a good core.”

ServSafe is an added bonus to any kitchen, he added, but the course costs $150 per person.

“Not everyone can afford that. When you find someone who already has that certification, that’s -huge plus,” he said.

Graduates also come out of the program with job skills such as knowing the importance of attendance and how to work well with others.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” graduate Nitza Valderrama said. “It means so much. Life [isn’t] easy. All-I [have] to say is don’t ever give upon life. God’s there.”

Fellow graduate Aubrey Garcia said she didn’t think she could get a job before attending the culinary program.

“For the longest time, I thought I couldn’t get a job because I was low in education. Without these people, I had no hope. But now, I got my son things that I never thought I could,” she said during the ceremony.

Ruthann Messick, culinary program training manager for Kent and Sussex Counties, added that she had even received a compliment from someone at Ms. Garcia’s new place of employment saying: “She’s doing an awesome job.”

To help celebrate the accomplishments of the graduates, Milford Elks Lodge Secretary Cyndee Sammons spoke to the group of her own experiences. Her own career began in the culinary field as she helped out at -catering business run by her grandmother and friends.

“At 18, I owned my own catering business. I had my own rags to riches story. I was middle class tall the way down and back up again,” she told graduates. After living her earliest years through struggle, she said she was, “strong enough to pull myself up by my bootstraps” to get ahead. Ms. Sammons entered into corporate America with no high school diploma or GED. But she had tenacity and street smarts; and she knew how to sell herself.

“I decided I was not a product of my upbringing,” she told them. This realization helped guide her to earning her GED and taking college courses. She encouraged graduates to consider the culinary program an opportunity to change their roles and outlooks in life. “Everything in life prepares you for the next step,” she said.

Graduate Honie Cadle said she is grateful for the opportunity to go through the program. She said, “I’m in the second-half of my life. I’m going to strive to be called chef one day. That’s my ultimate goal.”

According to Kim Turner of the Food Bank of Delaware, the students’ tuition was funded through Delaware WONDER (Work Opportunity Networks to Develop Employment Readiness), a federal grant geared to getting people into the workplace and off SNAP benefits. This employment and training program is led by Delaware Health and Social Services Division of Social Services (DHSS), which administers the SNAP Program in Delaware. It offers targeted career tracks in construction, culinary arts, and manufacturing and broad-based job placement.

Graduates served guests a lunch buffet after the ceremony, including staples such as baked fish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and coleslaw. Specialties included beef stir fry with rice and shrimp and grits. Assorted desserts were also served.

“The students worked hard to get to this point,” said Executive Chef Tim Hunter. “Working in the food service industry is a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. The students are going to need the support of their family and friends going forward, especially in this industry where we work a lot of weekends, nights and holidays.”

To the graduates of the twelfth class: Well- done.

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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