Veteran volunteer teaches cooking, confidence

May 5, 2023

Rock stars usually become famous with sharp vocals or by shredding on an electric guitar so loudly that it peels the paint off houses.

Renatta Robertson is a rock star volunteer at Germaine’s Kitchen and Café whose tools include sharp knives, graters and peelers for vegetables. But her main implement is a passion for service and feeding the community.

“She is reliable and has consistently shown up every week for the past nine months to work alongside our chefs and help in whatever way was needed,” says Kelsey Allan, director of Germaine’s Kitchen, a project of Catholic Charities of Oregon. The project provides culinary training for people with intellectual disabilities. “We could not do the work we do without volunteers like her.”

It was Allan who gave Roberts the moniker “rock star.”

In addition to training people for jobs in food service, Germaine’s provides meals to local shelters. There is a lot of work to do. “Renatta has volunteered consistently with the food service programs for many months helping with students, meal prep, organization projects, etc.,” Allan said.

For her part, Robertson, 36, feels alive during her volunteer gig. “The staff and students are the reasons I keep coming back,” she said. “I feel like I have friends for life.”

After completing culinary school at Treasure Island Job Corps Center in San Francisco, Robertson joined the Army with hopes of becoming a military cook. Instead, she was assigned to a unit that responds to battlefield chemical hazards.

But she continued to care for her squad in the way she knew best: rustling up good meals for them in the barracks.

After retiring from the military and moving to Portland, Robertson found temporary housing in a Transition Projects veterans’ motel, where she received hot meals prepared and delivered by Germaine’s Kitchen. After tasting the delicious food and learning more about Catholic Charities’ culinary and hot meal programs, she felt excited to get involved.

Robertson started as a volunteer with the food pantry program, helping with food acquisition, stocking shelves and assisting food insecure clients. Because of her passion for working in kitchens, she soon began helping in the Hot Meals for Unhoused Neighbors initiative as well as working directly with Germaine’s culinary students.

Robertson aims to help them build confidence and the ability to communicate.

Renatta’s positivity, commitment and dedication to feeding the community is admirable and has been a welcome addition to our kitchen

Kelsey Allan, Director of Germaine’s Kitchen

One story illustrates Robertson’s experience. She recalled teaching knife skills to enthusiastic beginners with developmental disabilities.

“It’s always rocky to start,” she said with an affectionate laugh.

Of particular concern was onion day, when students attempt the difficult and sometimes perilous act of dicing the slippery round vegetables. Watery eyes add a whole new challenge.

“I said to myself, ‘There is going to be a lot of drama today,’” Robertson said.
And then there was no drama. Everyone handled their knives and tears professionally.

“They were fine,” Robertson said. “I had put that limitation on them. But there were no limitations.”

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