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.
WASHINGTON, DC – 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
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. https://www.sercalifornia.org/
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.
The 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: https://www.tejanocenter.org/