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More Than Just a Great Cook

Dale knows how to make delicious food, but what makes him special is that he’s a true “people” person. This made him the perfect fit for the cook/volunteer supervisor position at Lifelong, a nonprofit that offers many services including providing fresh food to people with HIV, homebound seniors, and people living with serious illness. To do the job, Dale has to be able to work a tilt skillet and facilitate a rotating group of volunteers.  Lifelong uses mostly donated food and volunteer support to prepare 5,000 meals per week, and they host as many as 30 volunteers at a time,  three shifts a day. Dale is generally the one who welcomes the group, explains the organization, the work to be done, and manages the various personalities from rowdy middle school students to longtime volunteers.  He needs to assess the volunteers’ skills, break them into groups and assign them tasks on the fly, based on the day’s cooking needs.

Dale had previous experience in front of house in the food industry as a waiter, bartender and coffee shop manager, but after struggling with homelessness and drug addiction, he returned to the workforce and learned the basics of cooking through the 16-week adult culinary program of FareStart.  FareStart is a nonprofit that runs social enterprises with more than 25 years of experience helping to prepare people to overcome barriers to employment for careers in the food industry.  At FareStart, Dale learned how to convert recipes and cut with different types of knives, skills that got him in the door at Lifelong as one of the five cooks working in the kitchen.

In addition to cooking, Dale’s current job requires him to sensitively handle interpersonal situations while staying focused on getting the day’s tasks done. Recently, when he noticed that two volunteers were telling stories that might be inappropriate for some of the younger volunteers, Dale set the older volunteers up at a prep station in a different area of the kitchen and checked in often.  He tries to keep in mind that “volunteers are people who are giving from their heart to help other people.”  He leads with a phrase like “I know you’re here to help, but I need you to do this,” and it helps to keep people feeling appreciated and tasks getting done.

Dale is excited to continue growing at Lifelong and is interested pursuing a client facing position such as a Care Advocate or Prevention Team member.  He says he would miss cooking at his job but that he still cooks at home, and he looks forward to working directly with people and empowering them. These positions require a college degree or equivalent experience, and while he doesn’t have a degree, Dale and his supervisor both feel that his strengths and experience so far would make him well suited to work one on one with clients. “My instructors and supervisors showed me that once you get through the process of turning your life around and focus on contributing at your job, you can do whatever you want.  You have to get past starting over, now you’re running things. That’s what I’m doing.”

The Hidden Talent Blog Series tells the stories of highly-motivated, well-prepared employees who got their start at an employment social enterprise businesses. With unemployment levels at historic lows, traditional businesses struggle to find good employees. With the support of social enterprises, and their own determination to beat the odds, tens of thousands of men and women have turned their lives around. They are some of the best-trained, most loyal employees a business could hope to hire. Our intention is that this series sheds a light on their potential, and that employers consider social enterprises as a source for finding great people.

Claire Michaels is the author of this blog series, and Director of Workforce and Hiring at SFMade and Manufacture : San Jose, where she develops programs and partnerships to help people who have overcome barriers to employment find career opportunities at manufacturing businesses in San Francisco and San Jose. Claire has been a fan of REDF and part of the REDF community for many years.

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