NEW MILFORD -- Dawn Hammacott is a gracious, soft-spoken woman with a passion for not only the culinary arts but making a difference in people's lives by "giving them a hand up not a handout.''

To many, the director of the nonprofit Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut, which she founded in partnership with town Social Services Director Peg Molina five years ago, is a community hero.

Hammacott, 55, did not allow naysayers or skeptics derail her focus on opening a school to help unemployed and underemployed adults in town build a new career path.

A former owner of the Grand Patisserie Bakery on Main Street, she managed to kick off a first year with a shoestring budget of $30,000. She was uncertain where she would find the money or students to go more than one session.

She was relentless in her quest for donations, be it pocket change or corporate dollars.

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Voting for grants Dawn Hammacott, a founder of the Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut, has recently been honored by the Safeco Insurance Co. as a "Community Hero.'' Community members can vote for Hammacott online to help her win either a $5,000 or $10,000 grant to benefit the school. Her award also comes with a $5,000 grant. People can vote daily until June 25. The voting website is located at: http://promoshq.wildfireapp.com/website/6/contests/235865. On June 29, the culinary school will celebrate its 17th graduation.

Today, the school's annual budget is $213,000; tuition is about $4,000 per student, with most requiring either full or partial scholarships to cover those costs. Hammacott and Chef Blythe Roberts are the sole paid staff.

For her diligence and devotion to this school, Hammacott this month was officially honored by a Safeco Insurance, as a "Community Hero'' -- one of 12 people so recognized across the nation.

The award comes with a gift of $5,000 for the school and the opportunity for another $5,000 or $10,000 check if she is able to get the community to support her through online votes through June 25, at http://promoshq.wildfireapp.com/website/6/contests/235865.

Since it opened in the kitchen at St. John's Episcopal Church, the program has produced 120 graduates -- nine more will graduate on June 29 -- and claims a 95 percent job placement rate.

In addition, the program, which started with its first 12-week session in 2007, has provided more than 42,000 meals to the town Food Bank to feed the hungry in this community.

"I can only say that Dawn has worked tirelessly, every waking minute, to ensure the success of this program,'' Molina said of the school, which has also become a local catering business that expects to expand in the coming year. "She is so deserving of this recognition, and we're thrilled for her.''

Jeff Kilberg, a partner in Nicholas Tobin Insurance and chairman of the culinary school Board of Directors, submitted Hammacott's nomination.

"This has been the most gratifying thing I've ever been involved with,'' said Hammacott, who lives in New Milford with her husband, Stephan. "To be able to change someone's life; to work with students on a daily basis, and see firsthand what they're accomplishing, is nothing but gratifying ... These students are the heroes.''

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