Dora Gamero is a tiny woman, but don’t be fooled by her slight frame: those little shoulders have carried a lot.
She grew up in El Salvador and in 1993, when she was 12, she immigrated with the rest of her family to join a sister already living in California. It was a new start on a good life. At 23, she married and soon had two children and a devoted husband. The family moved to Spokane because everything seemed more affordable here than in California.
“I didn’t work for seven years, I was a stay at home mom,” said Gamero, sitting at a table at Tony Ferraro’s Burgers and Italian Bistro on North Market Street. “But then my husband lost his job, and I think he got stressed out. He committed suicide. He used to take care of me, but he was no longer there.”
In rapid succession Gamero lost her husband, her house and financial security. Having nowhere else to go, she moved in with her mom.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Gamero, who soon discovered she had very few job skills.
Through the Department of Social and Health Services she was introduced to Career Path Services and Work Source, but she felt overwhelmed.
Nothing seemed right until someone pointed her in the direction of New Leaf Bakery and Café. The newest program under the umbrella of Transitions, which also runs Miryam’s House and Women’s Hearth among other social services programs, New Leaf provides basic kitchen training and cooking skills in a six-month program.
“It is not culinary by any means, but it will give women the kitchen skills they need to find a job,” said Michelle Armstrong, an AmeriCorps volunteer with New Leaf.
It turned out to be a great match for Gamero.
“I liked it right away. I cook a lot at home and I liked the people in the program,” she said.
The program is run out of the kitchen at St. John’s Cathedral on South Grand Boulevard. It’s free and participants meet on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Whatever is produced in the kitchen goes to the New Leaf catering service, as well as to booths selling breads and cookies at local farmers markets.
The program also runs a garden – the Growing Hope Garden – in the community garden at Hemlock Street and Fairview Avenue, just off Northwest Boulevard.
“The goal is to grow local food we can use in the kitchen,” said Armstrong. “It’s also a good experience for our clients to work in the garden and see how things grow, where food comes from.”
Armstrong explained that in the three years the program has been up and running, 53 women have enrolled and 34 have completed a level of certification either at six weeks, three months or six months. Of the 34, 18 have gotten back in touch to say they have found employment or are continuing their education.
“It’s difficult for us to keep track of the women because we encourage them to apply for jobs while they are still in the program,” said Armstrong. “There are four women in the program right now, but we have room for eight at a time.”
Gamero was hired two weeks before she completed the program, and she has worked at Tony Ferraro’s since 2009.
Ferraro beams with pride when he talks about her.
“She knows how to make everything here,” said Ferraro, and that’s saying something for a man whose restaurant features many secret family recipes. “I trust her completely. She has a key to the place. Sometimes she remembers better than I do how to make something.”
Gamero said the little north Spokane bistro has been a good match for her, too.
“It feels like family here, even when we have a bad day,” she said.
New Leaf also has a catering service and visits local farmers markets selling bread and cookies.
“It’s really about teaching the women some basic skills, so they become employable,” said Armstrong.
Sometimes women come into the program with criminal records, or they are very young with several children and little or no family support. Armstrong said New Leaf also teaches the women how to write resumes and approach job interviews.
“Personally, you really want the women in the program to succeed,” said Armstrong, “but they have to do the work.”
New Leaf was a turning point in Gamero’s life.
“I learned so much, not just in the kitchen, but to take care of myself,” said Gamero. “Life was really bad for some time, but it’s good now.”