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Summer 2019 Graduate Speaker Lydia Rivera

Lydia Rivera, Class of Summer 2019, is a driven pastry cook at Marta and mom to three children. She shared her story at our Summer 2019 graduation ceremony. 

Hi everyone, my name is Lydia and I’m very happy to be here tonight and share my story.

I was on my own at an early age. I dropped out of high school to support my sister and family, and by 17, had moved out of the house. For years I swung back and forth between different dead-end jobs at fast food places like Taco Bell and McDonald’s. At 19, I had my first child, and I switched my focus to full-time caretaker. Luckily my husband was able to support us, but I fell into a deep depression. I wanted to do more to support my family. Once my kids were school-age I threw myself back into the workforce and went to work at Shop-Rite. After I was laid off suddenly, I knew education would give me and my family a chance.

I googled around for education programs that would help me get my TASC high school equivalency. Grace Outreach stood out to me because they talked about empowering women–I liked that it was just for women. Because my scores were high, I participated in a fast-track 6-week program where I not only received education, but also learned workforce and professional readiness skills. As I was finishing up the program I was introduced to workforce organizations including Hot Bread Kitchen. The fact that Hot Bread Kitchen offered paid training and job placement were two big sellers for me.

Class of Summer 2019

I was so excited to get into training, but the first few weeks were hard. Though I had worked in fast food kitchens, I was uncomfortable in a professional kitchen setting. But Chef Wai and Chef Naseem pushed me. They reassured me I had the skills, and I took that and ran with it.

Later in training, I got “Chef of the Day” because I was able to lead my team. Before training, I was never one that was comfortable leading, but Hot Bread Kitchen pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me feel confident in myself.

Another hurdle I had to get over was going through the culinary interview trail. I wasn’t prepared for the rejection after my first trail. Katie built me back up, telling me I was amazing and I would be an asset to anyone. A few days later, she set up a trail at Union Square Hospitality Group’s restaurant Marta. I knew right away it would be different. At Marta, the head chef explained I would be on a production trail in pasty. She gave me three cake recipes to make and left me alone. I remembered what Chef Wai and Naseem taught me and felt calm. On the day of my trail, they sent all the cakes I made down to the restaurant. Long story short: I got the job.

In my new job at Marta, I am truly in a learning environment. First I learned Bianca (bread), and now I rotate into pastry production as well. In my spare time, I’m always learning. One of the many things I love is that everyone is included when we brainstorm new recipes and dishes. A few weeks ago a new woman started and my supervisor Chef Toni asked me to train her. I said, “are you sure you want ME to train?” Chef Toni said, “Yes, you’re crushing your job!” That made me feel so confident. And I trained that person and in two days, and now SHE is crushing it! Women empower women. There are more women than men in our pastry kitchen. Chef Naseem would be so proud!

My Chefs, Chef Toni and Chef Louis, are amazing people. They’re so understanding, and encourage me to talk about my life instead of bottling it up. I never thought having bosses like that would be possible–I actually enjoy coming to work. I’m working on going back to school in the fall for computer science or HR, and Union Square Hospitality even had someone come sit with me and talk about internships. I’m very excited about growing my career with Marta.

Jose of Union Square Hospitality Group, Lydia, and Karen of Hot Bread Kitche

My first jobs were actually in food—but I never thought of this as a career path. At fast food restaurants I worked long hours for little money. I would cry in the bathroom. Now, I don’t have those days. Hot Bread Kitchen took something I never thought I could succeed in, and made it a lucrative career for me. They took me under their wings and not only taught me a skill/trade, but also gave me the tools and support I need to succeed.

I met so many wonderful women in the program that had stories just like mine–stories of hope. Hope that gave us the desire to be better and to keep pushing no matter what.

I’ve come a long way and I have many people to thank. I’d like to thank my mentor Elizabeth Walsh, my teacher Mrs. Zeki, and all the staff at Hot Bread Kitchen. I’d also like to thank my mom and my husband, for always reminding me I am amazing and can do anything I can set my mind to.

I will keep smiling, be positive, and never give up. For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over.

Thank you.