For Good: Ryan Wells Foundation in Pinellas County supports next gen chefs

Ryan Wells Foundation scholarship winners like LaVante Pope may not be familiar names on the local foodie scene -- yet. But expect to be wowed in the future as he and his contemporaries hone their culinary skills with dishes like his current favorite of curry chicken, rice, and peas.

Pope recently became an assistant kitchen manager at St. Petersburg’s Oak and Stone. And someday, he hopes to open a concept restaurant of Western-meets-Eastern Indian food.

“The Ryan Wells scholarship gave me the opportunity to not only go to college, but to network with caterers and other professionals that I work with today,” he says.

The next time you savor a perfectly poached Eggs Benedict or bite into the buttery layers of a croissant, you may have the Ryan Wells Foundation to thank.

Ryan, a gifted cook, an Eagle Scout, and a Tarpon Springs High student who loved people, passed away in a car accident in June of 2005. Three months later, his family launched The Ryan Wells Foundation to help students achieve their culinary aspirations. What began as scholarships for a few Tarpon Springs graduates has grown into extensive nonprofit support for Pinellas County high school culinary programs.

Some scholarship winners go on to become fantastic chefs. Others decide on a career out of the kitchen. Either way, the Foundation’s reach is vast: To date, more than $900,000 in scholarship funding has been donated to nearly 150 students. Nine culinary programs throughout Pinellas County benefit on a continual basis as well.

“We’re honored to help others in Ryan’s name,” says Ashley Giasone, Executive Director of the Foundation and Ryan’s sister. “By investing in education, the Foundation aims to better prepare students for careers in the hospitality industry, which is so important to Pinellas County.”

Gardens are a 2020 focus. The relatively new culinary programs at Bayside and Disston High Schools in Pinellas need fruits and vegetables; state funds aren’t an option for perishable items, so it can be difficult to procure ingredients to slice and dice. In March, scholarship winners will compete in Walker’s Rising Stars Competition. The Foundation’s signature fundraiser, Evening With the Chefs, is held at the Sheraton Sand Key each May. 

The Foundation scope isn’t all Coq a Vin and croquettes; partner schools are encouraged to use their newfound skills for good. In 2019, students prepared lunch for 200 guests through Cooking for a Cause, a program that began in 2014 with the help of The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation. 

As participants in the Homeless Empowerment Program in Clearwater tucked into that gourmet meal, the students who prepared it realized their mission accomplished: They now possessed the ability to cook quality food for a massive amount of people. It’s lessons like these that set Pinellas culinary programs apart, says Chef Chris Long. And the Ryan Wells Foundation helps immensely.

A teacher’s perspective

Chef Long presides over the kitchen at Osceola Fundamental High School, and this in itself is no small thing. Plenty of high school culinary programs don’t even have their own kitchen, he says, and those that do often cannot afford the consumables needed for students to properly practice the art of cooking.

That’s right: Some of the would-be Emerils of tomorrow are being taught to cook without food.

“It sounds crazy -- a culinary program without ingredients,” he says. “But food is perishable, and funding for that is really hard to get.”

Enter The Ryan Wells Foundation, which offers scholarships, industry training opportunities, and funds for consumable purchases. An account with the Pinellas Education Foundation Fund makes it simple for Long to request what he needs, and the balance accrues every year. The results of Foundation support speak volumes. Recently, Long’s culinary team finished first at a regional competition.

Osceola Fundamental is one of five local ProStart Culinary Programs, all of which the Foundation supports. ProStart focuses on culinary techniques and management skills training for high school students. It’s a program his students take full advantage of, Long says, thanks to the Foundation. 

“Their impact is huge,” he says. “I’ve had scholarship winners in the last three years -- I’ve had students go on to work at Michelin Star restaurants or start their own establishments.”

Funding the chefs of tomorrow today

Tiffany Camacho makes a mean mofongo. It’s her favorite dish to cook, this Puerto Rican staple of fried mashed plantains; the comfort food always takes her back to her childhood. After earning her associate degree at Johnson and Wales University and working at St. Petersburg’s The Birchwood (Birch & Vine), she sees a career in culinary education as her future path. That aspiration is possible, she says, because of the Foundation. Camacho was a Ryan Wells Scholarship winner in 2014.

“The Ryan Wells Foundation sent me to school, but they did so much more,” she says. “Everyone there still wants to know how I’m doing and what they can do to help me in my career.”

Camacho points to her scholarship as a prime example of this long-term support. After obtaining her degree and earning multiple certifications, she still had some scholarship money left. The Foundation used the balance to pay down her student loan.

“I attend Foundation events and competitions because they really help,” she says. “They are like an angel who says: ‘I can help you achieve your dreams -- and then they do.’”

Giasone hopes for a similar impact. The Foundation means so much more than teaching the nuts-and-bolts of cooking, she says. By investing in individual students, the organization gives people the confidence to succeed. It’s an idea her brother would have embraced. 

“Of course we wish Ryan was here with us today, but to me, this Foundation makes me feel close to him; we’re honored to help others in his name.”

How to help

Save the date: Culinary students work with partner chefs to create a mouthwatering menu at Evening With the Chefs. The event is hosted by the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach and occurs each May.

Direct donations are accepted at the Ryan Wells Foundation.

Learn more here about the Foundation, its mission, and the prowess of Pinellas County’s promising culinary students.  

Additional links to organizations mentioned in this story:

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.
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