Providence, Rhode Island – Mouth-watering photographs flood Taylonda Vanover’s Instagram feed, showcasing her baking prowess: confections like three-tiered sponge cakes topped with homemade buttercream icing rosettes, sprinkles, and rainbow-colored fondant dots. Each picture bears the hashtag: #NeverGiveUp.
“It has become my battle cry,” says Vanover, a recent graduate of the Culinary Arts Training course at Amos House, a social service organization in Providence, Rhode Island.
The intensive, 16-week course is one of the training modules available through Rhode Island’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training Program. It’s also supported as one of LISC’s Bridges to Career Opportunities initiatives (Bridges), which connects adults to the training, job opportunities, and services they need to build promising, successful careers. Amos House is one of 40 community organizations across the country to receive funding for Bridges through a $10 million grant the Citi Foundation awarded to LISC last year. The resulting programs are launching thousands of people, like Vanover, into fulfilling, well-paying careers with room for growth.
Vanover found her way, at a low point in her life, to Amos House thanks to another Bridges graduate and family friend, Emir Roberson. Several years ago, Roberson completed the Amos House carpentry program and is now one of its academic instructors. “I saw that Taylonda was baking cakes almost every day and I figured if we could help her get into a position where she could experience some success, she would thrive and blossom. And that’s exactly what she did. She found purpose at Amos House, just like I did.”
“I’ve had so many really bad experiences that I didn’t even want to try,” says Vanover, who turns 26 in October, “but Emir was determined. I’m very glad he was.”
After dropping out of high school and getting her GED, Vanover worked in various low-paying food service jobs, but had trouble making ends meet and was unemployed for months at a time. She was losing enthusiasm for her dream of setting up a bakery of her own. Then things got worse.
“I lost my cousin, my great-grandmother and my grandmother all in the span of three months,” said Vanover. “It hit me very hard. I was very depressed. My grandmother made me feel comfortable and safe. We spent a lot of time together while I was growing up.”
In fact, it was those fond memories of baking with her grandmother that gave her the motivation to finish the training. Along with two dozen other students, Vanover worked through an intensive course to earn industry certifications ranging from safe food handling to CPR and first aid. She also learned key math and reading skills that she could put to use on the job right away.
“We teach fractions, measurements, menu adaptations, and cost estimates,” said Nick DeCamp, a chef and instructor at Amos House. Students are also equipped with the fundamentals of working in a commercial kitchen, which include basic knife skills and how to make the “mother sauces”—like Hollandaise and Bechamel—that are mandatory know-how in many high-end restaurants.
“It’s about learning skills that build your confidence,” said DeCamp. “The end result is that students can be in a high-volume restaurant and work efficiently, quickly and cleanly. It’s all about teaching the dance of the kitchen.”
A web of support services designed to help participants complete training, find and keep a job, and build financial stability is a hallmark of the Amos House program and the larger LISC Bridges initiative. The Citi Foundation funding helped Amos House step back and assess what it could do better. Greater emphasis on job placement was among the program refinements the group made, and the early results are promising.
“Our last cohort had 100% placement by graduation,” states DeCamp, whose sees getting his students into rewarding jobs as his top priority. “Whenever I go out, whoever I talk to, my goal is to uncover opportunities and forge relationships.”
When the co-owner of a local upscale artisan bakery, KNEAD Doughnuts, called looking to fill a position, DeCamp knew exactly who to recommend.
“Taylonda was great. She came early to class every day. She was dedicated and she made an impression. She started at KNEAD working two days a week and then quickly went up in hours. Now they are moving her into positions of authority.”
KNEAD doughnuts are sold in coffee shops all across Providence and the enterprise has rapidly expanded.
“The people here are great,” says Vanover, who has been in her new job since May. “I’d rather be at work all day every day. It’s a place that I want to be and I’ve been looking for that for years.”
She now spends her days helping to create donuts with flavors like strawberry shortcake, snickerdoodle, and pineapple coconut. “The taste combinations are incredible and they are always open to new ideas. I asked them about a s’mores donut and that flavor is going to be coming out soon. It’s very exciting.”
“Right now, I’m making a plan for all the things I need for my dream career,” adds Vanover, who bakes cakes in her spare time while saving to buy a high-capacity mixer and, eventually, a car. “If I don’t plan for it, it won’t happen. And I’m determined to make it happen.”