Friends Catering graduateSergio Ro quietly chops vegetables, preparing a lunch time meal at Friends Catering, a social purpose enterprise run out of Fred Victor. This simple task is filled with meaning for Sergio.

“At first when I was learning to cut potatoes the same size, I would stress over it, because each time I would get it wrong,” says Sergio. “But then Chef would fix it. And it helped me to see that there’s always a path back, no matter where you are in life.”

It is the type of lesson that is Friends’ reason for being. Supported by the United Way’s Toronto Enterprise Fund and many other generous donors, Friends is helping individuals who are living under the poverty line and facing challenges entering the job market to access new work opportunities. The enterprise began hiring in February 2009 but had operated somewhat less formally for quite some time before that.

As Friends continues to grow as a business, it is enabling more people to acquire workplace experience as well as a measure of self-confidence. For some Newcomers, it’s their first job in the country,  And for others who experience mental health, addiction or other health challenges, it is the supportive environment they need to grow and thrive.

For Sergio, working at Friends Catering was critical for instilling a sense of responsibility and breaking a cycle of depression that had left him without motivation or a sense of purpose.

“During a long period of time, I was so depressed that I saw no need to get up or to have a goal in life. But working at Friends Catering feels good because we’re a really small staff we rely on each other, we have to be dependable,” says Sergio. “It feels good to be needed, so I have a reason to get up. And through that, it got the momentum going to keep trying to move ahead.”

That momentum helped Sergio decide to return to his studies and apply to university. He credits his experience at Friends for the turnaround.

“Before I thought I could never go back to school, that I’ll never be smart enough to keep up with other students,” says Sergio. “It’s working in the kitchen that helped me realize that you have to work hard to achieve results.”

(This story was first published in a United Way newspaper insert throughout Toronto in 2011)

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