LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Don't mistake a new van at the University of South Florida Sarasota Manatee for food service created by hospitality students.
Instead, the 12-passenger van will be used to shuttle students with hopes of one day shuttling homeless veterans in need of a job.
Philanthropist and restaurateur Burton M. "Skip" Sack surprised the College of Hospitality & Technology Leadership's dean last week with the 2013 Ford van to help the students and a proposed pilot program.
Sack and Cihan Cobanoglu, dean of the college, want to create a pilot program called USFSM Culinary Boot Camp for homeless veterans, giving them skills for the kitchen and the back of the house in an effort to help the veterans get a new start and a new job. Sack called the university and kept the donation a secret from Cobonaglu until he surprised him outside the college's Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch.
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"He called the school, didn't say anything to me, and said, 'I wanted to buy a van and don't tell Mr. Cihan,' " Cobonaglu said.
The van is also for international students and for students in the culinary program that lack transportation, said Ruth Lando, spokeswoman for USFSM.
The school has about a dozen Taiwanese students who live in Palmetto and take the bus each day to go to college, said Sack, a member of the college's board.
"I figured the van could also be used to help transport those students back
and forth to Palmetto so they won't spend an hour-and-a-half on the bus each way," Sack said.
In an effort to help veterans get jobs, Sack also is ready to donate used cars that the veterans could rent, and would even pay for the insurance, but needs a non-profit organization to administer the rental program.
"The other problem with employment is only 25 percent of the homeless veterans have transportation, whether it's cars or bicycles," Sack said.
Culinary boot camp
It is envisioned the boot camp, still being organized, would partner with an existing Jewish Family & Children's Service of the Suncoast program that provides housing and job opportunities for homeless veterans called Operation Military Assistance Program, funded by a federal Department of Veterans Affairs grant.
The proposed USF program is a special one for Sack. He joined the Marines at 17, serving for three years and rising to become a sergeant. He's also one of the founding members of the Marine Corps Heritage Center in Triangle, Va., near Quantico. He still serves on the Marine Corps Association Board of Governors.
"I cringe when I see these guys on the street," Sack said. "We just have to do more."
Homeless veterans make up 11.71 percent of the homeless population, or 108 people, in Sarasota County, and 36 homeless veterans were identified in Manatee County, according to a 2013 survey, said Leslie Loveless, spokeswoman for the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. The national numbers from a 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report show that 57,849 veterans are homeless each night.
The Military Assistance Program through JFCS provides training, case management and housing assistance to veterans and their families in need in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties, said Jamie Smith, director of marketing for JFCS.
A memorandum of understanding is being drafted to create the USFSM program and has to be signed off, but once details are worked out, the program could begin as soon as possible, Smith said. The veterans selected for the culinary program would be chosen from the Military Assistance Program, she said.
"We're also going to make sure any individuals interested in participating have a willingness and interest in completing the program," Smith said. Veterans interested in receiving help through OMAP can call 941-366-2224, ext. 196, she said.
Sack, who splits time between Longboat Key and Cape Cod, Mass., is a former Applebee's executive and developed restaurants for Howard Johnson. He is now a restaurant investor and business partner with Sean Murphy for Eat Here.
Putting out the call
He also volunteers his time with JFCS where he became familiar with the military assistance program, which led to him and Murphy to hiring a homeless veteran to work in the restaurant. Sack is putting a call out and wants more restauranteurs to join him to make the proposed program successful for both JFCS and USFSM to help further the efforts of JFCS and Eat Here. They have already recruited John Horne of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and Steve Seidensticker of Libby's Café and Louie's Modern. The college's dean commended the participation so far.
"These restaurateurs came forward and said you guys put them in the houses, you guys train them and we will hire them," Cobonaglu said.
The selected veterans would come into the Culinary Innovation Lab in Lakewood Ranch and learn the restaurant trade of the back of the house and could receive a certificate of completion that could help them gain other employment.
"We're basically going to give them a three-day crash course in professional cooking," chef and instructor Joe Askren said. "They'll learn the ins and outs of the kitchen, and we'll find a job for them. We'll work with area restaurateurs and do job placement."
The program doesn't stop at the end of the training and a job, Askren said.
"It's an open door. If you were the homeless veteran, you could come back two weeks later to our intro to food classes and say 'hey chef, I don't know how to make the hollandaise,' " Askren said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.