Since 2014, Drive Change has helped formerly incarcerated men and women between the ages of 18 to 25 develop the culinary skills to secure gainful employment in the hospitality industry.
“Drive Change actually started as a food truck, and it ran for a few years,” explains Kim DiPalo, Chief Development Officer at Drive Change. “We targeted food services because there is a tremendous need for talent in the industry, but the industry also suffers from high turnover. Overall, it lacks the resources to really invest in entry-level employees, so people get stuck in low-level positions with little prospect for growth and they don’t stay. That is where we fill the gap and create opportunity.”
The Drive Change Fellowship is a 4-month paid learning and skill-building program focused on introducing fellows to the hospitality sector with opportunities for growth and mentorship from professionals who are invested in their fellow’s success. With the program, fellows are able to gain hands-on experience through culinary courses and training sessions that culminate in obtaining a valuable New York Department of Health Food Handlers’ Certification that provides better career prospects. The program, fueled by its success, has been expanding rapidly to help as many as it can.
“Obviously, a food truck has very limited space and we could only train eight to 10 Fellows a year,” said Kalilah Moon, Drive Change’s Executive Director. “So, we moved into a small commissary kitchen around 2016 and are about to expand to a 4,600 square foot space that has a kitchen classroom, office space, and meeting rooms. Fellows have access to one-on-one therapy, and so it's important for us that they have space where they can meet with therapists during their time at Drive Change.”
The Fellowship Program has grown to 45 participants a year. It prepares and immerses its fellows in a wide range of hospitality and food roles, supporting them from the beginning with industry knowledge and skills, to pairing them with a local restaurant to gain experience beyond the entry-level. In partnership with community-based reentry organizations and local facilities, including the NYC Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation, Drive Change ensures it is continually recruiting dedicated youth who are looking to grow and commit themselves to becoming agents of change. Drive Change also provides training for food businesses to support and invest in the talent of its formerly incarcerated participants, helping to ensure their fellows transition into a supportive work environment.
“We believe the biggest factor in preventing recidivism is gainful employment. Our Fellows make $22 an hour,” said Kim. “This allows them to focus on training and not have to worry about how they're going to pay their bills or support their families. They spend four days a week with us, Monday through Thursday.”
As part of its growth, Drive Change is expanding its network to include food businesses beyond restaurants and hiring fellows directly for its food truck and catering business. Drive Change’s food distribution program, Culinary Access & Relief Events (CARE), was created during the pandemic to respond to the sharp increase in food insecure people in Drive Change’s local Brooklyn community. Fellows learn useful skills in meal preparation and then distribute the meals to families in need. In support of the innovative, effective, and flourishing organization, the Mizuho USA Foundation, awarded Drive Change with a grant in 2022 to help further expand its Fellowship Program and build on the continued success of the organization.