NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. â€” For Tech. Sgt. Justin Franco, preparing food is his profession. Itâ€™s also his way of giving back to underprivileged kids in the local community.
Franco, a culinary academy-trained chef and Nellis Crosswinds Dining Facility production manager, is part of the Las Vegas-based nonprofit Chefs for Kids. The groupâ€™s mission is to alleviate malnutrition and hunger in children through education and awareness.
Through Chefs for Kids, Franco organizes and participates in volunteer events, serving a hot breakfast and providing nutrition education to kids. The events occur at twelve of the Clark County, Nev., School Districtâ€™s most underprivileged schools — schools in which 70 percent or more of the children qualify for free or reduced price meals because of low family income.
â€œSome of the kids we serve sleep in cars, they sleep in garages – they are below the poverty line.â€ Franco said.
Franco enlists the service of fellow military volunteers to help him whenever possible, and puts in 20 to 30 hours each month. In part due to his efforts, the organization feeds upward of 12,000 kids a year.
â€œThese kids are getting served by their heroes,â€ he said. â€œThey see us out there representing the U.S. Air Force, seeing that we care about them.â€
Franco joined Chefs for Kids in 2006, where he found internationally known chefs, representing many of Las Vegasâ€™ premier hotels and casinos, organizing free meals at local schools. Franco, who grew up in a tough New York neighborhood but â€œmade it outâ€ by becoming a chef and then serving in the Air Force, was inspired by the opportunity to give back.
â€œEvery breakfast – the reward is instant,â€ he said. â€œYou get to see the response from the kids when you hand them that plate. Itâ€™s a reward thatâ€™s worth it, in and of itself.â€
In addition to organizing events with Air Force volunteers, Francoâ€™s passion for service inspired him to raise public awareness for his cause. After self-initiating and organizing a 5K fundraiser run, which drew nearly 700 participants, he was asked to join Chefs for Kidsâ€™ board of directors in 2009.
â€œI was in tears, honestly,â€ Franco said. â€œI was in the company of six-figure executive chefs and they were asking me to help take the lead. I canâ€™t even tell you what that was like. To me, itâ€™s not about the recognition, and I was like, hey guys, you sure you got the right guy? But itâ€™s an honor.â€
Although Franco missed the opportunity to personally witness the run he organized due to a deployment to Afghanistan, he says the spirit of service has spread through the involvement of Airmen. Recently an Airman Leadership Class raised $1,200 to support Chefs for Kidsâ€™ free meals.
â€œPeople are inspired to embrace projects,â€ he said. â€œThe greatest thing about this program is it gives them hope.â€
Franco says the impact of volunteering is as real as it gets.
â€œItâ€™s amazing when we get Airmen, that their background and ethnicity is like the kids weâ€™re serving,â€ he said. â€œSometimes these kids are just surrounded by the bad – they see people getting on drugs, getting arrested, and thatâ€™s all they know. It makes a huge difference when the kids see someone thatâ€™s similar to them as a successful role model.â€
Franco hopes to broaden this effort by organizing career days, shoe drives, and a number of other initiatives to help local kids.
â€œSometimes itâ€™s just knowing that somebody actually cares that makes the difference,â€ Franco said.
Tech. Sgt. Franco is seeking volunteers for a May 24 event at Sunrise Acres Elementary School. More information is also available online at Chefs for Kids website, http://www.chefsforkids.org.