Community Kitchen Spotlight: Carmen Ozuna

Forty-four year old Carmen Ozuna sits in an office chair at Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) swiping through cell phone photos of meals she prepared as part of her free culinary job training in TAFB’s Community Kitchen. She stops on a picture of a pot pie with a golden, flaky crust.

“I like my chicken pot pies,” said Carmen, smiling. “I practice them at home. I have people I can practice for.” Carmen lives with eight other women at a sober living home in Fort Worth. Every evening after a day working in the Community Kitchen, Carmen said she enjoys going home to prepare a meal for everyone.

“They are all working to put their lives back together,” said Carmen. A few years ago, Carmen’s life was much different. For six years, she struggled with a heroin addiction and homelessness. In 2012, a shoplifting charge led to months of court proceedings, substance abuse treatment programs and a year-long stint behind bars. Before her addiction, Carmen had a successful career as a graphic designer for advertising agencies in Dallas and Miami. In the midst of her addiction, homelessness and incarceration, Carmen lost her portfolio of work and her graphic design skills became outdated.

“I felt really hopeless and lost,” said Carmen. After being released, Carmen connected with a reentry program for ex-offenders at Cornerstone Assistance Network, a TAFB Partner Agency. While meeting with a staff member there, she saw a flyer on the wall advertising a Community Kitchen information session that was taking place the next day. Carmen said she felt like seeing the flyer was a sign from God. After going through the interview process, she was accepted into the program.

“A Life-Changing Experience”

“I had no idea it was going to be a life-changing experience like it was,” said Carmen. “I’ve learned a lot.” Before joining Community Kitchen, Carmen had no culinary experience. Now, 12 weeks into the program, Carmen knows how to clean fish, debone meat, make a variety of pastries and breads, select complimentary herbs for a dish, and much more. “Chef Manny is an amazing teacher and he is very patient,” said Carmen. “The guest chefs that come in are absolutely amazing too.”

Chef Manny Vasquez is executive chef of TAFB’s Community Kitchen. He said he has seen Carmen grow over the course of the program. “Her enthusiasm and artistic ability really shines in the kitchen because of her artistic background,” said Chef Manny.

During Carmen’s Community Kitchen interview, her graphic design skills also impressed Community Kitchen Manager Barbara Higbee (Ms. B). “I knew she would have an eye for detail,” said Ms. B. “She hasn’t disappointed.”

Ms. B said that Carmen’s self-confidence was one of the first things she noticed about her and that she has seen it grow over the course of the program. “You can see her just glowing,” said Ms. B. “She has overcome a lot and we know she is proud to be here.”

Carmen said that the Community Kitchen has provided opportunities for her to network with people in the community and grow as a person. “I’m willing to take challenges, face my fears, try things and have courage,” she said. “I feel really excited about life and I have goals.”

One of those goals is going back to school for a culinary arts degree. Carmen also has hopes of working in a restaurant as an executive sous chef, a position second in command to the executive chef. “I love people and am good at managing people,” said Carmen.

Paying It Forward

Every day, Carmen and her fellow classmates prepare meals for those in need using food donated by community partners. Each month, about 6,000 prepared meals are distributed through Community Kitchen to TAFB’s network of hunger-relief agencies. Carmen said that knowing she is a part of getting these nutritious meals to those who are hungry means a lot to her.

“It feels really good because I’ve been in need before,” said Carmen. “It feels really, really good.”

Ms. B said that her hopes for all of the Community Kitchen graduates is that they find gainful employment, have an opportunity to use the skills and knowledge learned in the program, and spread the word about the Community Kitchen.

“I want them to be ambassadors, remember what they came from and pay it forward,” said Ms. B. “We have seen lives changed coming through this program. Knowing that we’ve played a small part in that change is very rewarding.”

Motivated for the Future

At the end of 14 weeks of training, Community Kitchen students are placed in two-week internships at restaurants and other culinary venues in the Fort Worth area. Carmen’s class, Class 29, concludes with a graduation ceremony on Jan. 23, 2016. Ms. B said she believes Carmen will do well in her internship.

“We are just excited about her doing a two-week internship,” said Ms. B. “We know she will be an easy one to place.”

Carmen said that everything she’s learned in the Community Kitchen has prepared her well for the future. “I feel motivated and positive about life,” she said.

When asked what advice she would give to future Community Kitchen students, Carmen emphasized the importance of being proactive. “Be the ‘I will—I’ll do it’ one,” said Carmen. “Stay positive, show up and show out.”

If you are interested in being a part of the next Community Kitchen class, the first step is attending one of the two upcoming information sessions on the program. For details on these sessions, visit our Community Kitchen page.