BY GWEN FRISBIE-FULTON
Saranda Sturdivant’s office is tidy and surprisingly calm, considering that it is nestled between Second Harvest Food Bank’s active warehouse space, full of beeping forklifts and busy volunteers, and Providence Culinary Training’s teaching kitchen, where students are busy peeling potatoes and boiling large pots of soup for community meals.
Saranda is adept at carving out peaceable spaces in unlikely places. She’s a young mother and has had a lot of practice at making do. It was only a few short months ago that she and her toddler son were living together in a local family shelter, a place where she had to create normalcy and parent in a very public setting. Living in the shelter for several months, Saranda learned how to create bedtime routines, play spaces, and a sense of home for her child, sometimes amidst chaos. “That’s what mothers do,” she says ruefully.
Mothers figure things out, sometimes against all odds. After leaving an abusive relationship, Saranda was committed to supporting her family on her own. While living in the shelter, Saranda got up at 2 AM each morning, buckled her son into his car seat, and drove to the Winston-Salem Journal’s distribution warehouse to load her vehicle with newspapers. Her delivery route, she confesses, should have only taken a couple of hours, but because she would need to tend to her son (even pulling over to breastfeed him in the dark on the side of the road), it would often take twice as long.
During the day, Saranda went to classes at Goodwill Industries. Her father would stay with her son in the parking lot while she was in class. Looking for a career that would not off hand reject her because of her past, someone recommended that she look into Providence Culinary Training (PCT) at Second Harvest. “I did always like to cook,” she says. “But once I toured the kitchen, I knew this was for me.”
Knowing that food insecurity is a symptom of a larger issue of poverty, Second Harvest’s PCT is a 13-week culinary program, designed to move graduates into family-supporting wage jobs. This is exactly what Saranda needed. Beyond simply employment, she needed a job that paid wages that would cover her family’s most basic needs, from housing to transportation to childcare to food.
Saranda’s first attempt to attend PCT disintegrated after her childcare fell through, but she was persistent. After receiving childcare assistance, Saranda returned to PCT to try again. For 13 weeks she worked alongside her peers, learning knife skills, culinary terms, food safety, and prepping ready-to-heat meals for Second Harvest’s partner network. “Our team came together like a family,” she says. “Beyond the skills, I gained a support network. I even met my best friend at PCT.” Saranda says that this encouragement and camaraderie was vital to her success—especially because while she attended the all-day PCT classes, she was preparing to welcome a second child.
“It’s amazing what you can do once you are given the support and space to do it,” she says.
By the time Saranda came to her graduation, she was a new mother to a little girl. The credentials couldn’t have come at a better time. Now with two children, launching her new career felt more important than ever. Saranda interned with a local baker, and was looking at restaurants in town for employment—but the folks at Providence had another track for her in mind.
Impressed by her sheer willpower and dedication, PCT invited Saranda to join their team at the food bank as their Client Services Assistant. “Saranda stood out to us because she is everything we look for in a student and an employee—the ability to persevere despite all odds to better themselves and their subsequent generations,” explained Heather Martin, Director of Finance and Development for Providence.
Saranda is quick to point out that she is not an exception; that her resiliency and perseverance are something she learned from her community. She says that it is no different for others coming into the program at PCT. “They are hardworking, they are smart, they are ready to do what it takes. We all just need the opportunity to prove ourselves.”
Saranda now lives in a new apartment where she can create new routines and new traditions for her small family. At work, she can help to guide and encourage people who are standing, literally, in the same place she was only months ago. “I can stand in front of someone here and say, ‘I did this, and I know that if I did it, you can.’ And they will believe me and know it is true because I’ve been there, too.”