When Loretta Bolotin started doing humanitarian work, she jumped right into it. “I studied community development and international security in college, which gave me the opportunity to go to Christmas Island and work with the new arrivals in the detention center,” says- she.
“Connecting with newcomers and drawing parallels between their stories and those of my classmates and family got me hooked. I loved it and since then I enjoy working with various communities.
Bolotin’s own family migrated to the northern fringes of Melbourne from southern Italy. “I was basically raised by my nonna and nonno, so I had first-hand experience of the challenges and opportunities that come with starting a new life in a migrant community,” she says.
After university, she continued to engage with migrant communities in Melbourne and Sydney, working for the Australian Red Cross, Life Without Barriers and House of Welcome in Western Sydney, while helping refugees in Egypt. to settle into new lives.
She already knew what she wanted in her dream job, so Bolotin decided to create it herself.
In 2015, she launched Free To Feed, a non-profit social enterprise that helps people who have sought refuge and asylum in Australia. The company improves the skills of refugees through food-based initiatives such as cooking classes, events and helps them make connections, enter the job market and learn English, among others . We caught up with Bolotin to discuss how she started the nonprofit and what drives her to work every day.
You were exposed to humanitarian work throughout your university studies and early in your career. Why did this lead you to launch Free To Feed?
Growing up in a multicultural community felt like a space that was part of my personal story [and] something I was so passionate about, so I’ve always leaned towards that kind of work and enjoyed working with refugee communities. Food seemed like the natural place to go in terms of supporting newcomers and building on existing skills. Food brings us together and was a big part of my family – it tends to play a part in the cultures of all communities – so the launch of Free To Feed was born out of this concept.
Tell me about a typical day at work, if there is one.
It always starts with a coffee! Usually we have meetings in the morning around planning and events, then I talk to my chefs about new menus. Then I’ll float around the kitchen and check on the attendees. Usually they try to feed me, and usually I agree. In the afternoon, I work on strategy, crunch some numbers around budgeting, check if there are any upcoming cultural milestones, and meet with team leaders. On a particularly good day, I might try new menu items or organize media training for our management team.
What do you find rewarding in your job?
When I manage to shut down the computer and see one of our training program participants working on the job. Sometimes it’s attending someone’s first cooking class where they share their cultural recipes and put into practice all the training they’ve received, other times it’s refugees from our program in kitchen, alongside our chefs, who are cooking for the first time. It’s work, work. That’s why we come every day and work so hard. See the faces and sense of pride and achievement of program participants.
What are some of the challenging aspects of this role?
Trying to find a balance is difficult. As a small startup and social enterprise that also operates in a rapidly changing hospitality environment, the hardest part is monitoring not only my own well-being, but also that of my team. All refugees in our program are paid employees, whether full-time or casual. I therefore feel strongly responsible for ensuring that we offer them good concerts, that the catering is thriving and that tickets are sold for the events. When you develop people’s skills and provide them with a stream of income, you have a major responsibility in people’s lives.
So how do you handle that responsibility when you have the day off or things don’t go as planned?
Most of the time, if I’m feeling down, I just need to take a nap and have a cup of coffee to get me back on track. I usually have the opposite problem where I have to get my energy back – I get too excited and work a hundred miles an hour which is not sustainable. The most important thing at work is durability. Like any job, it can be difficult or frustrating at times, but the purpose of our mission is so palpable that I’m not really lacking in motivation or demoralization here, which is incredible.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be patient because you can grow something out of nothing. Trust in yourself, your ideas and your community, and to build a community around an idea or a person, start sharing it. If you build something, people will come. People will share your vision if you’re honest about it and supportive.
Do you have any passion projects on the side? What is life like outside of work?
I am a mother with two young children, who are three and seven years old. They are an integral part of my world, so I spend a lot of my free time trying to be a good mother and be there for them. And swimming – it’s not a side hustle, but I do spend time swimming in the ocean outside of work.
How do you have the energy to run a business, raise two kids and still find time to swim?
Usually I just float! Being in the ocean is a counterbalance to all that cognitive work during the week and then the physical work of raising children; just dipping in salt water makes me feel better. You could say my passion project is floating in the ocean.
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