Alumni Spotlight: Cheryl Bell and Lara Pukatch, Miriam’s Kitchen

cheryl bell and lara pukatch

Interested in advancing your leadership in the nonprofit and philantrhopic sectors? Apply to our certificate program. We have full and partial scholarships available. Our application deadline is January 4, 2019. Learn more here.

Miriam’s Kitchen is a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. focused on ending chronic homelessness in the city. In addition to providing homeless guests with nutritious meals, staff help to build a community where individuals can receive the support they need to improve their housing outcomes. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with two alumnae, Cheryl Bell (Executive Chef) and Lara Pukatch (Director of Advocacy), about their experiences working in the nonprofit sector and their time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): Why did each of you want to work in the nonprofit sector?  

Cheryl Bell: I’ve worked in the corporate sector for over 30 years and I found that I wanted to do something that 1) I was passionate about and 2) that was about helping people develop and grow and be in a better position. Quite frankly, I got tired of working in an environment that was self-serving.

Lara Pukatch: From a young age, I knew that I wanted my work to focus on changing a world that is unjust. As a result, I have spent my entire career working in nonprofits.

CPNL: What’s been the most fulfilling part of your current roles, as Director of Advocacy and Executive Chef?

Cheryl Bell: For me the most rewarding part has been connecting with the guests, providing a meal for them that takes them back to a good place for the time that they are here. Letting them know that there are people that care about them, that are willing to fight for them, that they get the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, helping them get to their ultimate goal of housing. It’s really satisfying to know that what we do really does impact peoples lives for long-lasting stability. It’s why I get up as early as I do and the reason why I work here. It’s also great to work with people who are in the same fight, to improve people’s lives.

Lara Pukatch: Obviously, it’s rewarding when we have advocacy wins, but advocacy can be slow and isn’t always incredibly rewarding. For me, the most rewarding part of the work is being in partnership with our guests and people who have experienced homelessness, working together to bring about the change that we want to see. My role, wherever possible, is to use my power and privilege, and the organization’s, to amplify the voices of our neighbors and leverage their expertise and experience.

CPNL: Lara, you spoke a bit about wins. Is there an accomplishment that you’re most proud of during your time in your role?

Lara Pukatch: Housing ends homelessness. One of the things that we’re immensely proud of at Miriam’s Kitchen is that our advocacy has resulted in over $100 million in housing that ends homelessness for the folks we work with every day.

CPNL: Cheryl, what was the transition like from working in the corporate sphere to working for Miriam’s Kitchen and specifically as a chef? How did you know that food was the way you wanted to connect to people?

Cheryl Bell: It’s interesting. Initially, it probably had more to do with the housing aspect. Even when I was in the corporate world, I used to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity’s global village builds. Housing was always something that was near and dear to me. And on my second visit to Miriam’s Kitchen, it occurred to me that I had become somebody I had never been before, which was a good thing. At that moment, I knew it was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was an Executive Administrator for over 30 years serving C-Suite executives and literally overnight decided that I was going to work in the food industry, which is something I didn’t have any professional experience in or training in. I had been assisting at a culinary school. I realized while watching people eat that food is one common ground that can always bring people together. It creates the opportunity for folks to relax, talk, and learn about each other. It became very clear to me that meals are the gateway for our services, our advocacy, and ultimately housing.

CPNL: In terms of challenges, Lara you sort of touched on this before when you were discussing advocacy. Are there any other challenges either of you would like to speak to just in terms of trying to affect change?

Lara Pukatch: For me, one of the main challenges is that we are trying to change systems that are pretty entrenched. Homelessness is not new to this city and neither are the systems that are causing people to be homeless: a severe lack of affordable housing; centuries of racial discrimination that has prevented people from accumulating wealth and obtaining housing; and the criminal justice system. Nobody is experiencing homelessness in a vacuum – It’s related to all of these things so one of the challenges for us in the advocacy space is that the problems are so great and the progress can be so slow.  

Cheryl Bell:  I would say the challenges that I have relate to capacity. Miriam’s Kitchen is a pioneer in terms of what we’re doing. A lot of the things that we do here are the catalysts for other organizations in what they do. While we have a great team, we could always use more capacity – people who have a passion for the work and who also reflect the population that we serve to ensure that we’re putting out the best services, that we’re leaders in the market, that we’re maintaining our footprint in systems change. Ensuring we have the capacity and the resources to do the ground-breaking work we do to reach our goal of ending chronic homelessness in DC takes consistent effort.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program?

Lara Pukatch: Despite having worked for 15 years in nonprofits, I had never had the opportunity to intentionally learn about the best practices of operating one. In advocacy, my learning is often focused on a specific issue area or strategy, not the inner workings of organizations. I really valued the opportunity to be thinking with and learning from colleagues from across the country who are engaged in such valuable work. I enjoyed hearing from true experts about what has worked for them and to bring that wisdom and intentionality back to the work we do every day.

Cheryl Bell: Because I work in the kitchen, my work and my team sometimes operate in a silo, so the ability to have exposure in all varying facets of what makes a nonprofit functional was a great learning experience. Developing partnerships with different organizations with similar problems and finding practical applications in the course were significantly helpful. For me, what also came about, was I got an opportunity to learn where my unique niche is in the nonprofit sector and how to capitalize on that, so I can help my organization go further and have more visibility.

CPNL: How did the certificate program challenge you?

Cheryl Bell: Honestly, the amount of material being covered in such a short period of time. It was challenging trying to keep up and be ready for discussion and participation, it pushed me, and it takes you back to school days. It stretches your thought process because as you get older, what you believe is based on what you’ve experienced and when you’re used to one thing or one common set of things you’ve done your whole life you forget that there are other ways to do it. This program challenges your thought processes and system processes of how things should be done and gives you a fresh perspective on new and innovative ways that are real in the working environment today to consider and bring back to your organization to hopefully revive it, give it different perspective and think about the work differently.

Lara Pukatch: One challenge is that what you learn through the program requires that you ask questions of yourself and your organization. Are we doing this? Should we be doing that? And that can be overwhelming. The flipside of that is you can really reflect on what you are doing well. You also get to meet so many others who are experiencing similar challenges and opportunities. So, while you may be asking hard questions about your own organization, you also know that you’re not alone in asking those questions and facing whatever the resulting answers might be.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Lara Pukatch: The program has helped me to elevate ideas and strategies within my team and organization. Before participating in the program, I might have thought, “Am I the only person with this idea?” or “is this challenge unique to Miriam’s Kitchen?” After the program, I’m able to say, “we should really do this because this is a best practice” or “one thing that nonprofits often face is this, so what are we doing about it?” It’s helpful not just in my externally facing advocacy work, but in the internal change work to consistently improve as an organization.

Cheryl Bell: For me, I would say it’s given me more confidence to speak up and use my voice. Given that I’m a black female in a predominantly-white environment, I have learned to share my voice. I know that I have a valid, unique perspective that brings something else to the table. It has also helped me formulate what it is I do well, which is story telling. It’s propelled me to participate in more media coverage, giving more visibility to Miriam’s Kitchen. I’ve discovered that it’s something I’m good at and that propels Miriam’s Kitchen forward. I would echo what Lara said about the internal change work. The program helped me to start speaking up more about the importance of racial equity as it relates to the clients we serve, who are primarily people of color and black people.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Lara Pukatch: My advice would be that it’s a great program and to really know that the amount of work that it requires, not just to do readings and show up. Part of the real value is to be thinking critically of your own work and what you’re doing and to be using breaks and networking opportunities to learn from others.  It’s a lot to be learning so much and to be making so many relationships. I would want for people to understand the amount of work and commitment it takes and to give themselves permission to do all that while taking a real break from their day-to-day job – it’s just too much to also be squeezing in work calls and meetings after 8 or 9 hours of learning and networking!

Cheryl Bell: If you’re working in a nonprofit, especially at a director or manager level or if you’re someone that wants to grow in the nonprofit sector, I would recommend the program because it gives you everything from soup to nuts.  This program gave me in-depth insight into financials, governance, strategic planning, things that you may or may not see but that you should be aware of especially if you have a desire to become a leader or Executive Director of your organization. This program gives you a crash course in nonprofit management and it makes you really consider if this is for you, and if it is, it makes you ask what are you going to do to impact where you are to make it better.