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Hartford Center Provides Lessons In Cooking, Life

Chrysalis Awards First Culinary Certificates for Free


June 26, 2012

HARTFORD— -- Jacqueline Mitchell used to work in childcare until she lost her job and had to move in with a cousin. Worried that she possessed no marketable skills, Mitchell feared that she would never be considered employable again.

But she graduated recently with her culinary certification through the ServSafe training program run through the La Cocina program at the Chrysalis Center, a nonprofit social services agency at 255 Homestead Ave.

Started last November, the program is free to students. Its first four graduates received their certificates in a small ceremony.

ServSafe is taught by La Cocina Manager Kevin Roalf, a graduate of the American Restaurant Association who has 27 years of experience.

"It takes about four to six months to complete the training," said Roalf. "This would typically cost about $6,000 per person."

"All participants have to come from the Upper Albany community of Hartford, which is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country," says Chief Development Officer Maryellen Shuckerow.

All must sign up for case management to provide social services on a regular basis. The center employs 19 case managers.

Such services greatly helped Robert Williams.

"I became homeless and had to live in a homeless shelter for six months," Williams said. Previously, he had dabbled in cooking at Chili's and Macaroni Grill, as well as landscaping jobs.

But when he became homeless, he discovered that seemingly every food service location required certification, not needed when he originally found food work many years ago. "They all want it now," Williams says, "even Dunkin' Donutsand Burger King."

Unable to afford the training, Williams found refuge at Chrysalis Center. With help from his case managers, he started to rebuild his life by finding an apartment on Evergreen Avenue. He says he wants to become Roalf's assistant manager.

Kenny McMullin lived in Open Hearth shelter on Sheldon Street for 10 years. His primary income source was payments for four simultaneous disabilities.

Now that McMullin has earned his ServSafe certification, he plans to enroll in baking courses at Manchester Community College this fall. "Then I can join my wife's family business at a Florida bakery," he plans.

The La Cocina program is run every weekday and currently has about 30 participants, who must be present at 7 a.m. wearing their uniform. Training is completed using the Center's industrialized kitchen, where food is prepared for meals served to needy members of the community. Roalf also hopes to grow the kitchen into a catering business for outside clients at the same time.

ServSafe, run and administered by the National Restaurant Assocation, has essentially become a de facto requirement for most food establishments. Over 4 million have been certified using the test, which is accredited by the American National Standards Institute's Conference for Food Protection. It is the largest food safety certification program in the country.

"Our ServSafe program is paid for entirely through private donations, private foundations, and food sales," says Shuckerow. "There is no public funding."

For the Chrysalis Center as a whole, though, their financial report for Fiscal Year 2011 indicates that approximately 85% of their total operating revenues came from government contracts. Funding agencies include the state Departments of Social Services, Correction, and Mental Health and Addiction Services, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The center counts 3,108 total individuals and families served last year. By providing counseling, employment services, supportive housing, and case management, the Chrysalis Center staff said it hopes to go beyond the typical soup kitchen.

"There are about 75 food pantries in Hartford," says development manager Katie Cowell-Reaves, "and none of them are doing quite what we are doing."

For one participant, at least, SafeServ's benefits went beyond just job qualifications.

"When I came here, I was so shy," Mitchell, who now lives in transitional housing at Judah House on Vine Street, admits. "Everybody said I needed to express myself more."

After months spent learning cooking techniques and making friends every day in the kitchen, McMullin said, "Now she won't stop talking."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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