Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 11:50 am | Mostly Cloudy 75º


Chefs Cook Up Fine Cuisine at Dinner Fundraiser for Youth and Family Services YMCA

18th annual Reaching for Stars benefit raises more than $60,000 for programs supporting at-risk youths and others in Santa Barbara


Fifteen local chefs stirred up an incredible array of tantalizing dishes for the Reaching for Stars 18th Annual Epicurean Dinner fundraiser benefiting Youth and Family Services YMCA programs.

The programs provide outreach services and transitional housing for underserved at-risk youths, families and young adults in Santa Barbara.

Hundreds of guests indulged in an evening of fine cuisine prepared by some of Santa Barbara’s esteemed chefs, who worked in teams to create a five-course dinner at the May 24 event.

Salmon and applewood smoked bacon roulade with Dos Pueblos abalone chowder sauce prepared by chefs Eric Widmer and Michael Hutchings. Click to view larger
Salmon and applewood smoked bacon roulade with Dos Pueblos abalone chowder sauce prepared by chefs Eric Widmer and Michael Hutchings.  (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

The culinary masterpieces, paired with fine wines donated by local wineries, were served to diners throughout the evening at the enchanting Rockwood Women’s Club. The club, nettled among the giant oaks and lush greenery of Mission Canyon, served as a perfect venue for the celebratory affair.

The signature event raised more than $60,000 for the Youth and Family Services YMCA, a branch of Channel Islands YMCA, in support of four key YMCA programs, including My Home, a transitional housing program that offers employment, counseling and case management for former foster youths ages 18 to 21; the Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Shelter; the St. George Family Youth Center; and Support and Outreach Services (SOS), a mobile outreach program designed to help homeless youths ages 10 to 24.

Head chef Vincent Vanhecke, a central figure at the event for 17 years and who led the talented group of chefs in coordinating and preparing the gourmet menu, shared with Noozhawk his fondness for the nonprofit organization centered on helping troubled youths.

“Supporting these amazing youth programs is a cause near and dear to my heart because, when I was young, I went through similar situations that these kids are facing today,” he said.

“But back then there was no Noah’s Anchorage for me to be able to go to, so when I found out about Noah’s Anchorage I felt compelled to support the organization in any way that I can.”

Guests mingled on the spacious patio surrounded by giant oak trees during the cocktail reception as wait staff served mouth-watering Korean glazed pork sliders and avocado toast with ricotta cheese and lemon zest.

Once inside the dimly lit ballroom, board chairwoman Yonie Harris and executive director Valerie Kissell offered welcoming messages and gratitude for support that included an impressive list of sponsors who were essential in making the evening possible.

Tables laden with wildflowers and “Stories of Change Cards,” showing photos and personal stories from youths involved in one or several of the core programs, served to reinforce the unique and, in many cases, lifesaving services essential in providing much-needed care and support for the disadvantaged, abused foster youths and homeless population.

During the first course — featuring a dual of delectable feasts of BTB tator trio yellow tuna with shiso and ginger and New York strip with capers, and salmon and apple wood smoked bacon roulade — Leonor Reyes, director of the St. George Family Youth Center, explained to guests that running the center is a group effort based on compassion, dedication and love.

The St. George Family Youth Center serving youths and families in Isla Vista offers a wealth of on-site, drop-in recreation activities and academic services such as tutoring, book clubs, free access to computers, alcohol and drug prevention groups and leadership development clubs to teens in grades eight to 12.

Reyes noted that the center partners with various organizations that offer summer programs and services to families and youths, such as the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County Distribution Program, the weekly STEM-learning Make Space Program, and weekly tutoring and mentoring offered by the UC Santa Barbara Education Department.

Florence Berger, Reaching for Stars special guest speaker. Click to view larger
Florence Berger, Reaching for Stars special guest speaker.  (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

After the main course — of delectable sumac roasted loin, gratin dauphoniois and deconstructed mirepoix — special guest speaker Florence Berger shared her inspiring story of courage, perseverance and success through the support and encouragement she received from staff members as a teen staying at Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Center.

For more than 40 years, the Noah’s Anchorage Youth Crisis Center has been a safe haven for hundreds of vulnerable youths. The shelter, a licensed eight-bed group home for youths ages 10 to 17, provides showers, fresh meals and beds for runaways, foster youths and the homeless.

Open year-round, the shelter also provides crisis intervention, support services, and counseling for youths and families. All services are provided at no cost to clients.

“One of the key components of Youth and Family Services is the fact that we meet the youth where they are,”​ Kissel said. “Literally, our street outreach teams go to the streets and seek out youth at risk. We meet them where they are — offering basic necessities or just someone to talk to.

“We build on those relationships, with the end result being the youth come in off the streets and accept care and referral.”

Berger was born in Santa Barbara and admits that like many of the kids raised in Montecito, she grew up “privileged.” As a student at Laguna Blanca School, she was a straight-A honor roll student, the founding president of the school’s Amnesty International chapter, and played varsity basketball, soccer and softball.

“I hung out with the good kids, and people called me ‘goody-two shoes,’” she said.

On the surface, Berger lived a charmed life, but problems at home seeped through the cracks and terminated her sheltered existence. Her parents were alcoholics. Her father was abusive to her mother, and they eventually divorced when Berger was just 4 years old. At that time, she said her father deserted her and she remained with her mother.

“When I was 11, my mother’s alcoholism was so severe she couldn’t care for me,” she said.

Her mother died when Berger was 16. With her parents no longer around to support her, she was shuffled from family member to another — first to her grandfather who insisted on raising her in a close-minded environment.

“He was racist and homophobic, and needless to say, I did not grow up in a home that celebrated diversity and tolerance,” she said.

Berger said more abuse followed when she moved in with her aunt who, one evening at dinner, tried to force her to eat a plate of ribs despite the fact she was a vegetarian. When she refused and stood up for her beliefs, her aunt called social services. The next day, Berger was taken away and placed in Noah’s Anchorage.

“Here I was at 17, and I was living in a shelter for homeless youth,” she said. “I wasn’t poor. I wasn’t a minority. I wasn’t the stereotypical ‘bad kid.’ Yet I had no other place to go.

“It can happen to anybody. And anyone can need Noah’s Anchorage.”

Berger said her first day at Noah’s Anchorage felt very strange, initially.

“The house was warm and friendly, but I was in shock,” she said. “I’ll never forget my first roommate. She was a member of the Eastside Ladies, a local Eastside gang. She looked tough and had those painted-on eyebrows. And she terrified me.

“Later, she became one of my closest friends and turned her life around.”

Berger praised the Noah’s Anchorage staff and counselors, whose unconditional support, kindness and encouragement helped change her life.

“For me, it was the first time I was encouraged to find my voice and speak my mind,” she said. “And was safe doing so.”

Staff members also helped Berger study for the SATs, apply for colleges and scholarships, and find her first job working at Legal Aid, which led to her interest in law. She went on to graduate with a degree in psychology, and later found work at Noah’s Anchorage.

“Because of the shelter, I developed a love of helping the underdog,” Berger said. “Working there allowed me to be an advocate for kids in crisis, and I wanted to give back and be a role model for them. I wanted the youth to know that despite whatever obstacles they faced, they could overcome them and be successful.

“I wanted to be part of a support system for them, like I had received many years prior.”

While working with the youths at the shelter, Berger realized how helpless kids felt about their situation and how there wasn’t enough being done legally to remedy it, so she decided to go to law school. She attended law school in Washington, D.C., worked at the Attorney General’s Office there and as a youth advocate judge, and later as an assistant district attorney and the head of the domestic violence division, specializing in domestic violence as well as child abuse and animal cruelty cases.

“I believe it is paramount to be a strong advocate for children,” Berger said. “They need us. One quote that continues to resonate strongly for me is from Frederick Douglass: ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’

“Just think how much better and stronger our community can be if we invest more in helping to build stronger children. Noah’s Anchorage does just that.”

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

The 2017 Reaching for Stars chefs included, back row from left, Brandon Cougan, Eric Widmer, Vincent Vanhecke, Me Pete Clements, Greg Murphy, Stephane Rapp and Michael Hutchings; front row from left, Jean-Michel Carre, Jamie Limbardi, Jamie West, Sybille Kromer, Christine Dahl-Hutchings and Mossin Sugish. Click to view larger
The 2017 Reaching for Stars chefs included, back row from left, Brandon Cougan, Eric Widmer, Vincent Vanhecke, Me Pete Clements, Greg Murphy, Stephane Rapp and Michael Hutchings; front row from left, Jean-Michel Carre, Jamie Limbardi, Jamie West, Sybille Kromer, Christine Dahl-Hutchings and Mossin Sugish. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

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