An Immigrant Founder Uses Food to Lift Up Her Latino Community

An Immigrant Founder Uses Food to Lift Up Her Latino Community

Paty Funegra of La Cocina VA has raised $2 million to turn her community kitchen into an incubator, a café and a place of hope for struggling immigrants.

By Collen DeBiase – The Story Exchange

It’s a big moment: Paty Funegra is getting ready to move her kitchen out of the basement.

Funegra is the founder of La Cocina VA, a social enterprise that helps unemployed Latino immigrants find jobs in the food industry by teaching them food and language skills. For the past five years, she has run the culinary-training organization from the lower floor of Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virgina. But now, she’s ready to scale — and recently raised $2 million to open the Zero Barriers Training & Entrepreneurship Center, which will include a state-of-the-art kitchen incubator, a community cafe, and, she hopes, the promise of a successful future for newly arrived immigrants.

An immigrant herself, the Peruvian-born Funegra says she feels it’s her responsibility to help the vulnerable — especially now. In the wake of the El Paso shootings, and amid anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, “we see a lot of fear in our communities,” she says.

“My position is to hands-on jump in and do something about it. Don’t fight back that rhetoric with words but with actions.”

Learning the Best Approach

It took Funegra a while to figure out how to best help immigrants.

She grew up in Lima during a turbulent time of violence, poverty and narcotics trafficking. In 2007, she moved to the U.S. after falling in love with an American (the relationship didn’t work out) and eventually took a job with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. While the bank finances economic development projects in Latin America, Funegra felt disconnected, being so far away. “I was never able to experience how families in Nicaragua, or in Brazil, or back in Peru, were being the beneficiaries of these investments,” she says. “So I started looking around, here in the D.C. region, for opportunities to get involved with my Latino community.”

Funegra became a volunteer at DC Central Kitchen, a 30-year-old community kitchen that helps unemployed adults learn restaurant-industry skills while also donating the meals that they cook to the homeless or hungry. “So I went there to chop carrots and onions,” she recalls, noticing that the kitchen mostly served the African-American community. That was her “a-ha” moment. She asked Executive Director Michael Curtin if she could replicate the community kitchen idea, but this time serving Latinos. “Mike was very generous, accepting right away,” she says with a laugh, but “he didn’t realize that I was serious about it.”

Not only was she serious, Funegra launched La Cocina VA a short six months later, while still working full-time. “I didn’t have $5,000 back then” to hire a lawyer, she says, so she took online courses on how to start a nonprofit. Then she needed to raise more money and find partners. “I remember I was skipping lunches and breakfast at work, just to go and knock on different doors.”

The missing piece — and it was a big one — was an inexpensive kitchen for hands-on preparation, plus classrooms for English classes. Fortunately, Funegra knocked on the door of Mount Olivet, which took an interest in her idea and donated the use of its basement. “This has been an amazing partner,” Funegra says. She quit her day job, drained her savings to print her first promotional materials, and began her new career.

Changing Lives Through Food

Since 2014, over 120 students have taken part in the fully-funded 16-week bilingual training program, in which they take classes on food prep, nutrition, sanitation and kitchen vocabulary. Graduates receive certification through Northern Virginia Community College. Some 85% have found jobs in the industry, and graduates’ average hourly wage is $14 per hour, nearly double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25, according to La Cocina’s 2018 annual report.

Funegra has signed up a number of corporate partners, including food giant Nestlé. “La Cocina VA is providing students the skills they need to succeed in a huge and important sector of the economy: food,” the company said in a Medium post. With some 1.46 million people in the U.S. working in the food and beverage industry, Nestle added that it’s “thrilled to connect with trained talent.” Other partners include Hilton and Whole Foods.

Funegra says the majority of students are women immigrants from Central and South America, and many have been victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. With La Cocina VA graduates now holding down jobs and making a collective $2.6 million in salaries, she hopes their success inspires other immigrants “to look at the future with hope and with light.”

The new center, which is scheduled to open this coming March, would triple the program’s current capacity, allowing 120 trainees to graduate each year. It will be located on the first floor of an affordable housing complex. The cafe is expected to generate revenue for La Cocina VA, while the incubator would help aspiring food entrepreneurs test out ideas. “We have dreamers that are dreaming about starting businesses, especially women from the Latino community,” Funegra says. “I am immensely proud that now, in the very near future, we will be able to support them to … create jobs and to contribute to the economy.”

Funegra believes her own experience as an immigrant has fueled La Cocina VA’s growth.  “All those moments of challenges and obstacles, and barriers, and lack of clarity of the future, built the skills that I have now,” she says.

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Congrats to SERJobs – Houston for Being Awarded $1.5M For Reentry Projects

Congrats to SERJobs – Houston for Being Awarded $1.5M For Reentry Projects


– In its latest effort to ensure that individuals returning to the labor force from the justice system have the opportunity to gain meaningful employment, the U.S. Department of Labor today announced approximately $85.9 million in Reentry Project grants awarded to 45 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. The Reentry Projects will serve either young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who have been involved in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system – including those who did not complete high school – or adults ages 25 and older who were previously involved in the adult criminal justice system.

Administered by the Department’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the Reentry Project grants protect community safety by ensuring that successful participants enter employment and/or education; become productive, responsible, and law-abiding members of society; maintain long-term employment; and sustain a stable residence. President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address called for an ongoing commitment to reform efforts that prevent crime, facilitate successful reentry, and reduce recidivism.

The Department awarded these grants to a combination of rural and urban projects located in high-crime, high-poverty communities. Awardees offer a range of services based on current evidence and proven research, as well as promising emerging practices.

See the full list of  organizations that received the grant awards HERE

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SER-Jobs For Progress, Inc., San Joaquin Valley

SER-Jobs For Progress, Inc., San Joaquin Valley

SER-Jobs for Progress, San Joaquin Valley, Inc. (SER-SJV) was incorporated in 1973 as a 501(c)(3) community-based non-profit organization. The agency provides affordable housing, and educational, employment and training services in 17 counties—Alameda, Amador, Calaveras, Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Madera, Mariposa, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Joaquin, Tuolumne, and Ventura—throughout California and maintains a corporate office in Fresno, California. The agency’s mission is to provide individuals the opportunity to become self-sustaining, obtain quality education, employment and training opportunities, childcare, affordable housing, and other services that may benefit the community as a whole.

SER-SJV’s 10,000 square foot corporate office in Fresno is leased by private and non-profit entities including SER’s programs, program and administrative staff. Revenues received from the leases are unrestricted and mainly used to upgrade and maintain the facility.

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Tejano Center for Community Concerns in Houston(TCCC)

Tejano Center for Community Concerns in Houston(TCCC)

SER National could not educate, employ and empower Latinos throughout the country without the on-the-ground work and commitment from affiliates like the Tejano Center for Community Concerns in Houston.

In its 25-year history, the center’s mission has remained constant: to develop education, social, health and community institutions that empower families to transform their lives.

“By providing comprehensive social services programs that respond to essential community needs, the Tejano Center has emerged as an important local resource for families and neighborhoods,” said Dr. Adriana Tamez, Interim President & CEO.

The Tejano Center was established as a nonprofit community organization to serve the East End, a predominantly low-income Hispanic area of Houston. Tejano Center offers a variety of impactful programs, including the Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success (RYSS) Charter School, Affordable Housing Program, VOCA – Victims of Crime Act Outreach and Support, Youth Shelter and Foster Care Program, and the Baylor College of Medicine Teen Health Clinic.

“RYSS provides a K-12 college preparatory educational experience for children from surrounding neighborhoods and is committed to the success of every student, regardless of his/her academic or economic background,” said Dr. Tamez.  “I am so proud to lead a school district that devotes so much energy and so many resources to the hopes and dreams of every child who enters our doors. We have an awesome responsibility to the children and their parents, but we have proven that we are up to the task. We welcome and cherish our scholars and dedicate ourselves every day to their success.”

RYSS is a proud member of both the Houston and Brownsville communities, working alongside its parent organization—the Tejano Center for Community Concerns—to ensure effective teaching and learning for all scholars and proactively engaging parents and local businesses and organizations to share in the development of productive and responsible citizens.

A great education reveals the great potential in every child. That’s what we strive to do at the Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success. We are committed to ensure a success story for all students in our Houston and Brownsville campuses by creating safe environments where high-quality teaching and learning can flourish and where scholars learn to be responsible citizens of our community, our state, and our nation. All of our faculty and staff are united in opening doors to college and careers for our scholars, leading them to live up to their potential and take their rightful place in moving our diverse and boundless society forward,” said Dr. Tamez.

The Tejano Center’s Affordable Housing Program aims to provide opportunities to citizens who lack resources to access affordable, quality, and safe housing. Since 2005, the program has helped more than 2,500 new homeowners and 3,500 mortgage-ready homebuyers, providing a strong foundation and empowerment for these individuals to succeed. Tejano Center serves some of the most vulnerable populations, including but not limited to, low income families, families with children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, non-English speaking individuals and undocumented residents.

Tejano Center for Community Concerns imageThe Home Repair Program began operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in 2008 and has repaired over 120 homes, mainly for minority homeowners. The Disaster Case Management and Home Repair program have been revamped as a response to the immediate and long-term needs resulting from the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey. The Tejano Center is currently providing Hurricane Harvey Disaster Case Management and Home Repair services for homeowners whose primary home suffered damages from the storm and its aftermath. Through Tejano Center’s Disaster Case management, the applicants are provided with financial tools to become self-sufficient. 

The purpose of the VOCA program is to provide direct services to victims of crime through a systemic approach, supporting and guiding clients in their journey towards healing and self-sufficiency.

The Youth Shelter and Foster Care Program helps children that have been neglected and/or abused by providing a safe and loving foster home to meet their basic needs. The Tejano Center has been extremely effective in connecting qualifying foster parents to children in need of positive relationships and healthy living conditions.

Located on the RYSS campus, the Baylor College of Medicine Teen Health Clinic is open to RYSS scholars and their families as well as the community. The clinic serves young men and women ages 13 to 24 for immunizations, wellness exams, treatment for minor illness, birth control, STD testing and counseling, health education, pregnancy testing and counseling, sports physicals and health screenings.

“The impacts the Tejano Center is making in the community directly align with the goals of SER National,” said Janey Appia, Chairman of the SER National Board of Directors. “It’s not just about placing people in jobs. It’s about providing them with the education, empowerment and support they need to infuse their lives with sustainability and value.”

Learn More:

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SER Metro-Detroit: Pennsylvania CareerLink

SER Metro-Detroit: Pennsylvania CareerLink

Pennsylvania CareerLink is just one example of the services provided by SER Metro-Detroit, a SER Affiliate that has grown from a small community resource serving Southwest Detroit residents in 1971 to a multi-service, multi-state corporation serving as a direct link to gainful employment of diverse populations.

“At Pennsylvania CareerLink, we meet our job seekers right where they are and gauge their needs so that they can achieve their professional and personal goals,” said Gizela Burnside, EARN Director, reminiscing on a past job seeker. The woman had experienced many personal and physical challenges, but she obtained a full-time job with the help of the SER team and her Workforce Advisor through CareerLink.

The CareerLink West office, located in West Philadelphia, is made up of 64 full-time staff and seven interns. These advisors, job developers and instructors specialize in a broad array of services, such as job matching, obtaining employment and training referrals, and instructing workshops and orientations.

“SER Metro has taken the worst-performing CareerLink in the Philadelphia system and turned it around. We are now number one in Philadelphia. Not only has our performance increased, but we are working to get our customers jobs that pay a higher rate which lead to more self-sufficiency,” said Chris Paul, Site Administrator for Pennsylvania CareerLink and SER Metro-Detroit’s Regional Director for Pennsylvania.

CareerLink has paired with major employers in the Philadelphia area to provide jobs for the unemployed, including the University of Pennsylvania, Jefferson Hospital and Drexel University.

Recently, CareerLink hosted a job fair with more than 80 employers and 700 job seekers in attendance. Over 100 job seekers were hired instantly and dozens more were hired after the companies completed the hiring process. 

“In fiscal year 17-18 we enrolled 90 percent of the clients who walked through our door, we continued to strengthen our returning citizens programs, and we helped over 1,000 Philadelphia residents obtain and maintain employment,” said Paul.

Last year, CareerLink serviced about 40,000 job seekers, mostly from inner-city communities in Philadelphia.

“After spending my early years at SER Metro-Detroit, it is wonderful to see the excellence of that affiliate’s programs continuing to create so many opportunities and change lives,” said Ignacio Salazar, president and CEO of SER National. “SER Metro-Detroit is an example of how hard work, commitment and compassion can help people get back on their feet and on the road to a fulfilling life.”

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CENTRO CHA – Long Beach, CA

CENTRO CHA – Long Beach, CA

Latinos make up 44.5 percent of the population in Long Beach, Calif., making it the city’s largest demographic but also one of the poorest. Latinos in Long Beach work mainly in service and manual labor jobs and many do not have health insurance, according to the Economic Profile of the Latino Community in Long Beach.

The profile was spearheaded and presented by SER affiliate, Centro CHA, a grassroots, community-based nonprofit organization providing quality, necessary and compassionate services to more than 5,000 families from underserved, impoverished Latino neighborhoods. The driving force of the report was the question – how do we increase the quality of life for Latinos in the city of Long Beach?

The profile provided key data on population, education, employment, income, poverty and health for the 214,000 Latinos that live in Long Beach. Attendees at the first Latino Economic Summit had the opportunity to not only learn more about the Latino community in Long Beach, but also to engage in meaningful conversations about public policy, community engagement strategies and the need for future research.

“Centro CHA is advancing the community by working to promote economic equity and civic engagement for Latino youth and families in Long Beach,” said Jessica Quintana, the organization’s executive director.

In order to keep up with the growing rate of Latinos in Long Beach and to successfully carry out its mission, Centro CHA activated programs throughout the community that include workforce development, parent services and citizenship/immigration integration.

In one participant’s own words, “Robby and Denny were such helpful case managers. I now have two jobs and I am returning for more training. When you are serious about employment, they match that energy and help you get it done.”

Over the last year, Centro CHA has made significant impacts in the community, including providing legal application services and assisting 974 residents to successfully pass the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Exam to become new U.S. citizens and voters.

Centro CHA also made an impact in the lives of 200 youth through its Face Forward Youth Diversion/Reentry Program. The program targets at-risk youth ages 16-24 and offers free job training in many areas, including CA Food Handler Certification, Personal Caregiver and CPR/First-Aid Training, Forklift Operator Certification, Refinery Safety Overview Certification, Customer Service and Retail Certification and Guard Card License.

Centro CHA continues to serve and improve the Long Beach Latino community through partnerships and collaborations.

One partner, the Long Beach S.A.F.E. Initiative, focuses on reducing violence and encouraging youth development throughout the community. The initiative hosts the “Summer Night Lights” program, which keeps parks open late through the summer and provides a safe place for families and kids to interact.

Centro CHA has also experienced success through the Every Student Matters (ESM) campaign, which led to the Long Beach Unified School District passing a resolution to terminate the use of suspensions and expulsions as disciplinary actions in schools.

Through another Centro CHA collaboration, California State University hosted a summit that strictly focused on the Boys and Men of Color Initiative. The summit encouraged students to graduate high school, provided college and career options, and prepared them to become constructive citizens.

“The leadership, research and outreach of Centro CHA truly fulfill SER National’s promise to transform lives and communities through education, employment and empowerment,” said Ignacio Salazar, president and CEO of SER National. “We thank them for their important work that results in changed lives.”

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