When Chef Roberto Mendoza won $250,000 from a scratch-off ticket this past January — which was an impulse buy — he immediately decided to use it to help the homeless in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as for hungry children in the Dominican Republic (DR).
Part of his generosity stems from his traumatic childhood. “I grew up very poor,” says Mendoza, who is from El Salvador. He grew up during the war and even survived being kidnapped — and thanks to the Salvation Army, he was able to escape to Canada. “I was by myself. Sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t,” Mendoza recalls. “When I was 14, 15 years old, I went to bed without eating all day. And like at one o’clock in the morning, I wake up and I said, ‘at least a glass of water I’m going to have.’ When I opened the faucet, air come out because they shut the water off. So I cry and cry and cry and I tell God, ‘When I grow up, I never want to suffer hunger again.’”
Not only has he made that come true by becoming a successful chef — Mendoza has cooked for three U.S. presidents, a Saudi Arabian prince, and even for the Oscar awards ceremony — but he made good on his promise to himself. In 2013, when he was the chef in charge at the Coca Cola NASCAR Cup Series, he had an epiphany. “I see how the forklift [picked] up that much food and put it inside the refrigerator containers. When I saw that much food, I said, ‘Thank you Lord because I never see that much food in my life and thank you because I’m in charge of it.’ And that clicked in my mind that day: [it] is time to do something for needy people.”
Shortly after, he set up a program to use all the leftover food to feed the homeless in the area. Then, during Thanksgiving that year, he asked his friends for — and received — 600 turkey donations to cook Thanksgiving meals for the homeless in Charlotte. There, a 75-year-old woman called Sister Patria asked if he could help children in the DR.
But that’s not all. Two years later, the IRS sent him a $10,000 check after an audit. He used $6,000 to buy two acres of land in a very poor village in Bayaguana, Dominican Republic, and the rest for materials to start building a cafeteria that can hold 400 children. “Everything is free for them; nobody pays a penny for it,” says Mendoza, who is still working on the cafeteria building “because I want them to have a place to eat, a place to learn and live. A place where we can change their lives.”
When Chef Mendoza won $250,000 through the North Carolina Education Lottery, he decided to split it between his two humanitarian focuses. “When I won that money that day, I got back home and I said, ‘This is not my money…I’ve been praying for it, something I’ve been asking for…And here it is.’”
This month, he opens up The Chef Heaven’s Kitchen in Concord, North Carolina. Among other things, he is most proud that he can provide employment to people who just need a chance. If you want to take part in Chef Mendoza’s ongoing humanitarian efforts, make a donation at www.thechefheavenskitchenusa.com/donations. You can also keep up with Chef Mendoza on Instagram at www.instagram.com/chefrobertomendoza.
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