MOUNT VERNON — It’s lunchtime at the Friendship House Cafe, and Fancy Scott is putting some freshly chopped greens and tomatoes on a tray, next to the peaches, garlic bread and made-from-scratch smoked salmon macaroni and cheese. On top of the greens, she pours a small ladle of honey mustard dressing — the dressing she made herself, like she did the cheese sauce for the macaroni and cheese.
“Basically everything we do is from scratch,” Scott said. “It’s been really nice learning how to do everything from scratch and not just a box.”
Scott, who until recently was a Friendship House resident, is a member of the first group of students in Friendship House’s Hunger to Hope program, which takes Friendship House residents and teaches them valuable life and job skills.
“I was the first one to fill out the application,” Scott said with a smile.
Last week Scott moved out of Friendship House and into her own home. She plans to begin applying for jobs in restaurants and hopes to find a small, “mom-and-pop” place to work and bring her enthusiasm for food and her new skills with her.
“Our ultimate goal is to get our participants jobs,” said Tom Hoffman, kitchen manager and teacher for the program. “Not only get jobs, but get them trained up so they can keep those jobs.”
As a professional chef with more than two decades experience, Hoffman knows what skills the programs participants will need to get a job in the food industry. During the 12-week program, the students learn everything from how to chop a tomato to how to smoke a salmon.
They obtain a food handlers permits, learn CPR and acquire other certificates to help them in the field. Hoffman runs the Friendship House kitchen just like he would any other kitchen.
“It’s more brutal than a regular kitchen,” Hoffman said. “It’s a safe environment, they’re not going to get fired, but I will tell them what’s wrong and right.”
Four people participated in the program’s inaugural run, and two of them have since moved out of Friendship House. Ideally, the program is suited for between four and eight people at a time, said Blake Westhoff, program coordinator.
While they are participants in the program, Westhoff said they also get help writing resumes and finding jobs.
“Employment is a leading cause of homelessness,” Westhoff said. “Many people don’t have employment skills. We saw this as an opportunity to not only improve our food program, but also help our clients get jobs.”
The students prepare and serve about 5,000 meals a month, Westhoff said. Because the kitchen is stocked with a lot of donations, the students have to stay on their feet and learn to adapt to what’s put in front of them.
“It’s an empowering program for them,” Westhoff said. “It gives them the opportunity to give back. Feeding people is a really powerful way to do that.”
Dawnya Suiter hopes the skills she’s learning in the Hunger to Hope program will lay the groundwork for her new career.
“I feel that people who are homeless or have drug problems still deserve good food,” Suiter said.
Suiter said she always liked cooking, but never made it a career. One day, she said, she hopes to be able to open her own cafe, similar to the one at the Friendship House.
“I get to feed people,” Suiter said. “And I put my heart and soul into it.”