NEW MILFORD -- When Noreen Ong lost her job in the technology industry months ago, her first thought was to find any job to pay the bills, maybe driving a school bus or training as a certified nurses assistant.

The 53-year-old Brookfield woman then discovered what she really wanted was a new career, a chance to tap into her love of cooking. Her unemployment counselor told her about the New Milford Community Culinary School a job training program for unemployed or underemployed adults 18 and older that started a year ago.. Thirty-one-year-old Gloria Leon of Danbury was looking to broaden her career horizons when she saw a newspaper advertisement for the school. She signed up. Four weeks into the program, Leon, who works part-time at the Olive Garden restaurant in Danbury, is singing its praises. "It's fantastic," Leon said. " It's the best experience I've had in my life. I never thought I could learn so much so quickly." Such words are what keep long-time bakery chef
Dawn Hammacott committed to the school that was her brainchild and that of New Milford Social Services director Peg Molina . The program costs $35,000 per 12-week session to run and now depends solely on donations, fundraising events, and an evolving on-site catering business to cover its expenses. In the next three months it will become a nonprofit organization, which will allow it to apply for more funds, including government grants. Once that's approved, the name will change to the Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut . "We feel like we've really accomplished something," said Hammacott of the program, now in its fourth session. "We feel we've made a real difference in the lives of our students, and it is very rewarding to see the success they have had.'' To date, 17 students have graduated; five more are now enrolled. All the graduates are employed in food service, either at local hospital or nursing homes, grocery stores or restaurants. Beyond teaching students how to prepare a recipe, Hammacott and chef
Blythe Roberts teach them how to find and keep a job. Students are given workshops on interviewing skills, resume preparation, and such basics as punctuality, appropriate work attire and customer service. The course curriculum is based on the national Second Harvest Community Kitchen program. All the students participate in an internship and at graduation earn a ServSafe food certification. As for what they make in class, nothing goes to waste. In the year since the school opened, 6,360 meals have been donated to the town Social Services food pantry. The students get experience by catering special events. They prepared food for a recent wedding reception. So far, Hammacott said, the school has raised $7,500 with its catering services and has another $37,000 in contracts. Longtime town official Frank Wargo said he hired the culinary school students to cater a surprise birthday party for his wife, Priscilla. When the culinary school was first proposed to the Town Council , the then-Democratic councilman -- now Economic Development Commission chairman -- was wholeheartedly in favor of it. In these economic times, Wargo said, veteran managers suddenly lose their jobs and cannot find work even at a fast-food restaurant. "And that can be devastating. It's a terrible feeling not to feel valuable." New Milford Hospital has become a major supporter of the culinary school, offering not only internships and jobs -- four graduates now work there -- but committing $3,500 to sponsor a student. The hospital expects to offer more such sponsorships in the future. "What a fabulous program! We're very excited we were able to get in on the ground level," said Diana Broderick , the hospital's employment director, who was recruited to volunteer on the school's advisory council. "It was like serendipity," Broderick said. Hammacott and Roberts have faced their share of challenges. But "when we see the success the students are having, and see their appreciation, no matter how hard it's been," Hammacott said, "that's what this program is all about."

Contact Nanci G. Hutson

at nhutson@newstimes.com

or at (860) 354-2274.

The New Milford Community Culinary School Opened Aug. 4, 2007 Location: St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green parish center kitchen Eligibility: Must be 18 or older and unemployed or underemployed. Referrals made by social service agencies, unemployment offices or through employment advertisements. Coming events: The MVP-SOS annual dinner is scheduled for Oct. 4 at Candlewood Valley Country Club . To donate, get catering menus, or learn more about registering, contact the school at (203) 512-5791 or send a fax to (860) 355-6019. The school's mailing address is the town Social Services Office , 40 Main St., New Milford, CT 06776.