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7 Questions – Carina Gervacio (Brainfood)

Let’s welcome … Carina Gervacio, Program Coordinator at Brainfood! In an after-school program that gets at-risk youth off the streets and into the kitchen, Brainfood teaches cooking alongside reading, math, science, creativity, teamwork, and leadership.

1. What was your most interesting recent project, initiative, partnership, or event?

On Thursday, June 2nd, Brainfood graduates led a cooking demo at the Penn Quarter Farmers Market through Fresh Farm’s “Chef at the Market” program. Our students typically cook in our industrial kitchen, so it was a real treat to be making food outdoors, handing out samples, and talking with market customers about easy ways to cook with farmers market produce. The Farmers Market Fried Rice students made featured great market ingredients, including local mushrooms, asparagus, seasonal garlic scapes, and farm-fresh eggs. The best takeaway from the event, however, was seeing how easily Brainfood grads stepped into leadership roles and relished the chance to share their cooking skills with the public.

2. What else are you up to?

There’s really great energy (both nationally and in DC) behind improving food access, promoting urban agriculture, and building community through food and cooking. At Brainfood, we’re trying to build on this momentum with the fall launch of our Community MVPs program. This program is geared towards Brainfood grads who want to stay involved with Brainfood for a second year and use their cooking and leadership skills to give back to the community. The MVPs will develop a curriculum to teach hands-on cooking classes to community groups, and the focus of these classes will be teaching healthy food alternatives to residents and groups in the District. This summer, we’ll be putting all the pieces in place to roll out this new program in the fall. It’s a big task, but one that I’m excited to take on.

3. Is there a moment, person, or event that inspired you to do this particular work?

Without a doubt, the DC high school students that I’ve met through Brainfood keep me inspired, excited, and confident that urban youth can be the catalysts of positive, widespread social impact. Every year, we challenge a new class of Brainfood students to rethink how and what they eat, to learn new skills in a new environment, and to work alongside youth from different schools, neighborhoods, and backgrounds. Year after year, they’re up to the challenge. When my job or responsibilities seem daunting, I reflect on the amazing teens I’ve been privileged to work with, and it’s easy to find the energy to go the extra mile.

4. Who is your hero in the nonprofit/philanthropy world?

If I had to pick one hero in the non-profit world, it would be Wangari Maathai. She’s the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with founding the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Her ability to find synergy between the conservation movement, women’s rights, and reforestation efforts embodies the capacity of NGOs to effectively leverage their power as community organizations to create meaningful, sustainable social change. Closer to home, my heroes in DC are the many youth workers who work long days on short paychecks, and who enrich the city with their energy and positivity each day.

5. What is the single greatest (and non-financial) challenge to the work that you do every day?

What frustrates me the most on a daily basis are the stereotypes and assumptions that persist about urban teens in DC. It’s honestly laughable how any people assume that DC teens are unmotivated class-cutters who commit crimes and eat Flaming Hot Cheetos all day. (Seriously, people, it’s just not true!) There’s a strong culture of community service and youth engagement in DC that speaks to the resilience and resourcefulness of teens who live in this city. It’s sad when people disregard that and pigeon-hole urban youth out of fear or ignorance.

6. What advice do you have for other people who want to work inyour field?

Take care of yourself! You can’t help others if you’re not taking care of your own mental health. Youth worker burnout can sneak up on you, especially if you’re working in direct service. Find a mentor who you can confide in, or make sure to schedule time to recover from the demands of work. There will always be something more to do in the non-profit sector — that’s the nature of this work — but it’s important to put yourself in the best position to succeed. Sometimes that means finding a way to take a breather before you get back to fighting the good fight.

7. What’s next?

A big summer program for 20-25 high school youth. There’s nothing like having a full kitchen at Brainfood, and Program Director Amy Brady and I are looking forward to watching a new batch of students learn to sift, stir, blanch, and julienne this summer.

EXTRA: If you could have a power breakfast with any three people (living, dead, or fictional) who would they be?

This is such a great question, that I can?t even think of an answer!

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