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In the Midst of Hurricane Recovery, SOWELA Students Advanced to the Frontlines in Their Culinary Careers to Help During Relief Efforts

SOWELA Technical Community College students teamed with Mercy Chefs to feed the needy

(Lake Charles, LA) – With only a year of culinary school under their belts, three SOWELA Technical Community College students were thrust into the frontlines of their aspiring careers, cooking thousands of meals each day for the survivors of Hurricane Laura, the most powerful storm to hit the Louisiana coast in more than a century and a half.

Working with Mercy Chefs, a faith-based, non-profit disaster relief organization that serves professionally cooked meals to disaster survivors, Lillian Peal, Sherman Broussard, and Kiaeem Walker all suffered damage to their homes during the record shattering storm and lost their student externships at local restaurants. The three second-year SOWELA culinary students then were offered full-time jobs as chefs creating menus, devising recipes, and volume cooking lunch and dinner for the thousands of storm victims throughout Southwest Louisiana.

Mercy Chefs, which was founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina left destruction in much of New Orleans, provided more than 6,000 meals each day to the storm-ravaged area of Southwest Louisiana, and this week have moved their operations to Alabama near the Alabama-Florida state border with the recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sally. SOWELA culinary student Walker is continuing with Mercy Chefs, working on the road and continuing his online culinary classes at the same time.

“When we respond to disasters, we rely on the local community for support,” said Gary LeBlanc, founder of Mercy Chefs. “These culinary students are making a huge impact on our response in Lake Charles, helping us serve over 70,000 meals. They had been put out of work from the storm and we were thrilled we were able to hire them to join our response team to serve their own neighbors in need.”

SOWELA culinary program director and professor Jerry Sonnier says as bad as the crisis was for so many Louisiana residents, it provided an opportunity for these three students to fulfill their lifelong dream jobs as real-life chefs. “The COVID pandemic crippled the culinary industry, and the hurricane dealt a near final blow throwing these SOWELA students out of their externships, but now they have risen to the top of the line with the Mercy Chefs job,” he said.

Sonnier says there is emergency funding for all Southwest Louisiana culinary students impacted by the devastating storm through the local Lake Charles chapter of the American Culinary Federation by going to their website at www.acfchefs.org.

About SOWELA Technical Community College
SOWELA Technical Community College provides traditional, distance, and lifelong learning experiences and awards associate degrees, technical diplomas, and certificates. The College empowers learners in career and technical education and enables transfer students to pursue a four-year degree, so all learners excel as globally competitive citizens. The College has been educating the region’s workforce for 80 years. For more information, visit www.sowela.edu.

Mercy Chefs is a 501c3 founded in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The organization exists to provide professionally prepared, restaurant-quality meals to victims, volunteers, and first responders in natural disasters and national emergencies and partners with existing ministries with food service in underserved communities around the country. Since its founding, Mercy Chefs has served over 6 million meals. In 2020, Mercy Chefs founder Gary LeBlanc was recognized by Southern Living magazine as a “Hometown Hero,” and Mercy Chefs was named the 2020 Small Business of the Year in the nonprofit category by Inside Business and the Hampton Roads Chamber. In 2016, LeBlanc was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award under President Barack Obama from the Corporation for National and Community Service. In 2015, Mercy Chefs received both the Virginia Governor’s Volunteerism Award and the Hampton Roads Volunteer Achievement Award for its service. For more information, visit MercyChefs.com.