Two years ago, Shaneka Jimerson and her three children were living in a car in Orlando after she lost her telemarketing job and couldn’t afford rent — but she hadn’t hit bottom yet. That day came when her car caught fire.
"Thank goodness no one was hurt,” she said, “but it wasn’t just a car. It was our home.” Kind strangers intervened. Firefighters took them to their station and fed them. The Red Cross put them up in a motel for four nights. After that, though, she had to send her two daughters to live with their father, keeping her son, the eldest, with her at a friend’s house. “I hated to split up my kids,” she said.
Soon after, at the urging of the Red Cross, Shaneka entered the free Culinary Training Program at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, one of several programs that prepare food in the 2,000-square-foot Darden Foundation Community Kitchen. The 14-week program provides students with the skills and support they need to obtain an entry-level position in a foodservice establishment.
With that second chance at the Second Harvest Food Bank, the single mother transformed her life, moving from struggling to feed her own children to helping to feed thousands of other children.
“About halfway through the Culinary Training Program, Shaneka just nailed it,” said Dave Krepcho, president of Second Harvest Food Bank.
“She had found her fit. At graduation we were so impressed with her ability and attitude that we hired her for full-time work here. She smiles from ear to ear and is so thankful.”
In her position as a production/catering cook in Meals for Good, she helps prepare fresh, nutritious meals that will be delivered to Second Harvest Food Bank’s community partners including Head Start and other early child-care centers, children’s after-school programs and group homes.
It adds up to about 5,000 kids’ meals prepared every day in the Darden Foundation Community Kitchen, which was built with $750,000 in funds and in-kind contributions from the Darden Foundation and Darden Restaurants.
In addition, Darden partnered with its vendors to support the project. They contributed upwards of $1 million worth of appliances and equipment for the kitchen, which also serves as the production area for Catering for Good, a full-service catering program expected to raise $400,000 this year to be channeled back into the Second Harvest Food Bank.
“Without the Darden Foundation Community Kitchen,” Dave said, “we could not accomplish any of the things we are doing to help our community.”
Shaneka said she couldn’t ask for a better place to work. “But I have to be honest. It was rocky at first.” She said she wasn’t keen on entering the training program but had no better ideas. “I stuck it out and began to enjoy the work. My mentor, Chef Instructor Israel Santiago, and the people here genuinely care. I had to prove to them and myself that I could do it, and I did. I’m very blessed. Now my family has a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway, food on the table and smiles on our faces — and we’re together.” Shaneka has four children now, ranging in age from 1 to 17.
She has taken on more of a leadership role at the food bank, but her ultimate goal is to give back to the community with her own culinary kitchen for children. “I want to teach children how to cook to survive. I know what it’s like to be hungry. And when your kids are hungry, it’s the worst feeling in the world. Maybe kids are coming home to an empty house after school and there’s only some bread, peanut butter and chicken in the house. I want to show them how to make a meal or snack out of whatever they have so they’re not hungry.”
Looking back on those bleak days when she lived in a car and fed her children snacks from the grocery store, Shaneka starts to cry. “You don’t want your kids to ever feel like you’re going to give up on life. When your baby tells you, ‘Mom, I don’t care where we live or what we have to do as long as I’m with you,’ that’s enough to keep you going.”
Now her children tell a different story, one in which they are proud of their mother and secure in their new life. Travis Sirbastian, 17, who gives back by volunteering at the food bank, said it best: “My mother has worked really hard, and look where we are now.”