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'It's like family:' From food bank culinary program graduate to volunteer

Elvin Santiago loves to be around people.

In his hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico, he worked in hospitality for 20 years at a resort hotel where he rose from an entry-level position to become the banquet manager, a job that had him overseeing events and directing staff.

But “I lost my job in 2020, as a lot of people did, because of the pandemic,” Elvin said. At the same time, he and his family moved to Orlando, Florida to offer better support to his son who has special needs.

Despite Elvin’s decades of experience, he was unable to find a job for almost a year. “It was depressing,” he said. He missed working with people and needed money to pay his family’s bills.

“Finally, somebody gave me a chance,” he said.

In February 2021, Elvin started the 16-week Culinary Training Program at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, a Feeding America partner food bank. The program provides free kitchen and life skills training to help people pursue sustainable careers in the food industry.

After completing the program, Elvin got a hospitality job at a golf driving range. “I like working there,” he said. “It’s a job with new opportunities.” 

“They treat me well, and I feel like I can stay there for a long time,” he said.

He now returns to the food bank to volunteer in the warehouse. He makes sure to stop by the culinary program’s kitchen to say hello to his former chef instructors. “They remember me,” he said. “It’s like family.”

Watch a video of Elvin's story, and learn how you can get involved during National Volunteer Month and beyond.