Monthly Archives: November 2017

Feeding the Soul (Inspiration Series, Week 31)

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Chef José Andrés wasted no time getting food to its people.

Chef Andrés brought his skills as a chef and inspired together to feed the people of Puerto Rico in their greatest time of need.

Back in Week 21 I wrote about Fred Rogers and his advice to “Look for the helpers.” And when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, in September, it became all too clear that some very special helpers would be required to respond to tremendous and unprecedented needs.

Enter Chef Jose Andrés, world-renowned restaurateur and hero-in-waiting. As politics and bad management hindered progress on the island, the Chef and his troop of workers swept in and did what they do best. Feed the hungry.

Although to the rest of us he seems like a natural at all this, he didn’t start out as a philanthropist. By 2011, Chef Andrés had earned a top reputation for his signature minibar and é restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas, as well as for a string of eateries (everything from steakhouses and seafood to casual dining and Spanish fare) across the US. He served as Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center and taught a course in how food shapes civilization at George Washington University-–the school would have him as commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate degree in public service.

His first big foray into disaster relief came in that year, when he created World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit association of chefs set up to help Haiti recover from the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 of its people. After getting nutritious meals to the most needy, he went beyond the basics and educated Haitians about things like clean cooking fuels that don’t harm the environment.

The experience gave him some preparation on how to handle challenges. He arrived in Puerto Rico on September 25, 2017, just five days after Maria hit, devastating the island and wiping out access to food and water for many. He quickly learned that there was no one in charge and took $10,000 of his own money, as well as credit cards, to get the balls rolling. Soon Chef Andrés was feeding 50,000 people a day; FEMA, whose response to the crisis has been questionable, gave him money to prepare 20,000 meals over a week’s time, and a second contract for two weeks, before declaring they couldn’t give more.

Andrés would grow publicly frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of urgency he faced from FEMA, but even as the agency pushed back on the criticism, he and his team continued their work. In fact, they delivered more meals than the experienced relief organizations—by opening bottlenecks they were able to get supplies to where they were most needed.

There would be no skimping on the meals they cooked. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he noted the difference between providing packaged MREs and fresh food:

“Americans should be receiving one plate a day of hot food. That’s not too much to ask in America. An MRE is very expensive for the American taxpayer. A hot meal is more affordable, it’s cheaper. It’s what people really need, it’s what people really want. They feel all of a sudden that you are caring for them, that America is caring for them.”

This notion of food not just as nourishment, but as a symbol of commitment, shines through Chef Andrés’ work. At the peak of the crisis he ran 18 kitchens across the island, leading his team in the effort to get meals to every resident he could reach.

He reminded interviewers more than once that those being helped were not just our neighbors—they are, in fact, U.S. citizens who deserve the full support of their country. And so he returned with World Central Kitchen in November for that most American of holidays to serve Thanksgiving meals to 40,000 people, including volunteers who have worked tirelessly since the storm.

Like many of the best Inspirers, Chef Andrés is quite effective in balancing his roles as a master organizer and eloquent spokesman with his job as a cook. He can talk inventory and supplies, then switch effortlessly to nutrition and human dignity. His hands are capable, his spirit seemingly ready for any challenge.

In a world where news—even the most tragic sort—is only relevant until the next headline, it is all too easy to lose track of stories and suffering. It’s tempting to remain wrapped in our own lives and challenges, with the presumption that surely, someone else will step in to help.

And so we count on those better angels among us to keep us engaged and be a voice for those without one. We look to the leaders who see a problem and move quickly to address it. Although not all of us have the expertise to make soup for a thousand, heroes like José Andrés can inspire us to dust off our own gifts and put them to good use.


The Welcome Wagon (Inspiration Series, #30)

David (on the right) has spent a lifetime making connections that count, including with husband Robert.

David Kilmnick first entered my orbit (or perhaps more accurately, I entered his), in my second year of college. Of all the things I’d thought about doing, pledging wasn’t one. But most of my friends had joined this co-ed fraternity, and though i didn’t exactly meet the qualifications, I was invited anyway. After a lifetime of feeling unsure about where (or whether) I fit in, the idea of joining a group gave me a hope for belonging like I had never felt before.

At the heart of the experience was David, who led our little group through the trials and tribulations of pledging. It was all very hush-hush, more than a little stressful for a girl with more than her fair share of insecurities. 

He had a laugh unlike any I’d ever heard–it was loud and silly, a signal that fun was about to start. During the first few weeks, he seemed to recognize my nervousness. I was far more anxious than was reasonable, but throughout the stretch of 8 weeks or so, I could count on him to talk me down off the ledge. I got more than one calming note and advice to relax. 

Once we had passed all the tests, I entered a time that to this day, holds some of my fondest memories. As one of the main leaders of this merry troupe, David played the roles of organizer, pep squad, and all-around fun-maker. Nearly every party included something that he got going – his irrepressible personality was made to engage people and bring them into the action. For someone who’d been craving a community their whole life, it was incredible to feel this kind of connection to people. If we were a small town, David was definitely the Mayor. 

Like so many others, I lost touch with all but a few close college friends after graduation. I wasn’t one of those people who went back for homecoming or got involved in a lot of alumni activities. So when Facebook came into my consciousness almost 10 years ago, seeing the old faces who were such a big part of the best years of my life was especially fun. I’m not sure who friended who, but suddenly, there was his face again. And after all those years, it still made me smile.

David had continued his path as a welcomer, and had found a way to do it that was beyond what I could have imagined. He was the founder and leader of a Long Island-based group dedicated to helping LGBT youth. Over the last two decades LIGALY has provided support and services to hundreds of thousands. The larger LGBT Network he currently directs runs programs focused on health, employment, housing for seniors – if it’s an issue for someone, David’s likely got it covered. 

It’s a huge responsibility and his role encompasses more than just being the guy welcoming those who need a place to be heard and helped. And yet, as I watched his interviews, his speeches, and read his posts, what struck me most is how he radiated that same acceptance I felt as an unconfident college kid desperate to fit in.

He’s been all over the country – the world – as a speaker on LGBT issues and has won multiple awards for his efforts. David is often who networks call for reaction to events and he has worked with high-profile public figures to maximize the impact of his group’s initiatives. 

Among his accomplishments is putting together the first suburban prom for LGBT youth in the US. I don’t know if he attended, but I can see him out on the floor urging everyone to have a great time. Another recent event was especially close to my heart. Anyone who knows David knows he loves his his sports teams, so when he coordinated with the Mets on a Pride Night at Citifield, I imagined him cheering on his team with the boisterous glee of a kid, even as he celebrated such a momentous occasion. 

In a world where we are tempted to stick to our safe spaces, folks who make it their mission to be that friendly face, who let us now we’re not alone, are like a gift from the Universe. Those of us lacking in natural self-esteem often count on them to not only be nice, but to accept and encourage us to be more than mere observers in this life. 

One of the many amazing people David has known is the late Edie Windsor, whose role as plaintiff in the case United States v. Windsor, which successfully overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and was a landmark legal victory for the same-sex marriage movement in the United States. While it doesn’t surprise me in the least, I am still a bit awed by David’s proximity to such incredible leaders. 

The world needs as many people as possible looking out for and lifting up others. Using their gifts to show the less brave among us that despite how it may sometimes feel, we are not alone; that there are folks out there waiting to be the outstretched hand that says “Come on in.” Those who know David can rely on his to be there. 

I leave you with a quote from Ms. Windsor, whose personal victory was one for so many she’d never meet:

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