Luciana Lamont was doing her best to make ends meet as a cook at North Miami's King Jerk. Yet the Dixie Highway spot that boasts some of the city's best jerk chicken wasn't paying anywhere near enough and wasn't giving Lamont, who is 41, the training she needed to move up in the kitchen.
Lamont has since moved into Lotus House and is one of the first graduates from the women and children's shelter's culinary training program that seeks to give them kitchen safety and on-the-line experience in hopes it will lead to restaurant work.
"Cooking was always a passion, a love of mine and something I've always done," Lamont said. "This program gives us women who live here an opportunity to have a career."
Recently, Lotus House's culinary operations received a $2 million donation from the David and Leila Centner Foundation that will ensure the center can continue serving up to a half-million meals annually while providing Lotus House's
"This allows our guests to learn new real-world skills and earn certifications that assure job readiness and a competitive edge in the work world," said Lotus House president and executive director Constance Collins. "This is an opportunity to truly break the cycle of homelessness and build the foundation for a brighter future."
The Overtown shelter, once a mere collection of aging apartment buildings, was founded in 2006 exclusively for women and children. About a decade later, the foundation opened a $25 million campus that houses up to 500 people in 140 living units; a computer library; yoga, exercise, and meditation rooms; an art and activities lab; a children’s wellness center; a trauma-focused daycare; a full health clinic; a beauty salon; and more.
While the organization has become a local and national benchmark for helping the homeless, it continually struggles with finding ways to reintegrate its residents into society.
"It is so challenging to find employers who are willing to give opportunities for those who have less educational attainment, and for
Proper kitchen training, she noted, could be a way forward.
"I've learned knife skills, making soups and sauces from scratch, how to take the temperature of meat while it's cooking, and how to make sure we store it safely," Lamont said. "In other jobs, there was no training on things like the microorganisms that can grow on food if it's left out for too long."
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Yet kitchen work for these women could also be a gamble. Restaurant jobs are known to be among the most difficult, lowest-paying, and most unreliable positions. Many don't offer healthcare or the flexibility a woman with children might need. Still, it's one place where Lotus House believes its residents, who are ready to work and ready to learn, can find the opportunity to do more.
"Yes, the restaurant industry is a tough one, but it's also one where you can go from nothing, you can go from being homeless to having your own home," Collins said.
In the meantime, the organization is looking for hotels, restaurants, catering companies, and any business willing to take on someone who's looking to make a change.
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