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She was days from homelessness. A Tri-Cities program gave her a fresh start

See how Opportunity Kitchen changes lives

Opportunity Kitchen is a 12-week vocational food service training program with Columbia Industries helping people with disabilities and other employment barriers.
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Opportunity Kitchen is a 12-week vocational food service training program with Columbia Industries helping people with disabilities and other employment barriers.

Steph Ciulla was one day away from buying a plane ticket to Hawaii.

She had gotten kicked out of her house and was trying to find a job all spring before that day, when she got a phone call from Columbia Industries’ Opportunity Kitchen.

She was in.

For the next 12 weeks, Ciulla got free, hands-on culinary training in safe food handling, cooking, knife work, kitchen lingo and customer service.

On Friday, Ciulla and her two classmates graduate from the program, designed for people who have employment barriers and are out of work.

“Going through this program has driven me to do a lot of the accomplishments that I have been trying to set myself to do,” she said.

Like nothing else in the Tri-Cities

Justin Crume, director of client services at Columbia Industries, said there is nothing else in the Tri-Cities like Opportunity Kitchen.

Some schools in the area have advanced culinary arts programs, Crume said, but Columbia Industries provides support from all angles.

Job training won’t solve someone’s transportation issues, nor will it help with addiction or housing, he said.

“(Resources) need to work together in an ecosystem to help a person if they have challenges outside of work,” Crume said. “There are all kinds of things that can happen to a person outside of work that prevents them from being successful.”

After graduation, Columbia Industries connects students with Tri-Cities employers — another unique thing about the kitchen, Crume said.

The program is still in its infancy. Opportunity Kitchen doesn’t have a revenue stream like other Columbia Industries programs.

Crume said he thinks the food students cook could be one of those streams. If students did catering, or even open a restaurant, that revenue would go right back into the program, he said.

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Steph “Kingdom” Ciulla, cuts up strawberries to put them on top of baklava and a New York styke cheese cake fusion. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Ciulla is looking for a job after graduation, but is also considering going back to school for more formal study of the culinary arts.

“It’s really awesome that they’re doing this for people, especially free of charge for people like me, who was like two minutes away from being homeless and traveling all the way across the sea,” Ciulla said.

Opportunity Kitchen takes applications all year long.

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