When full time parent, worker and entrepreneur Chef Gina Santiago volunteered her culinary skills at Norfolk’s Ronald McDonald House (RMHC) in January, she wanted neither payment, not recognition.
She was just paying it forward.
In fact, it was a video that Santiago, known as Chef Gee in her culinary circles, watched one day about paying it forward that began her endeavor. The phrase became famous in the 2000 movie Pay it Forward, about a young boy who launches a movement encouraging people to do random, heartfelt favors for strangers in effort to better the universe.
“I became enthralled,” said Santiago, a resident of Virginia Beach and owner of personal chef service True Flavor . “What could I do that I enjoyed doing that could benefit someone else?”
She was so inspired that she immediately googled ways to use her love of culinary arts to help others. Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides shelter and meals for families of children with ongoing medical challenges, seemed like a perfect fit.
Santiago, who was inspired a few years ago to become a professional chef in the wake of her own family tragedy, enlisted help from her Facebook friends and family to raise money for the task, rather than ask the organization to provide supplies.
“I went on my Facebook page and set a goal for $200,” she said. “We wound up raising $800.”
Those funds helped provide a home-cooked meal for the weekend of families, as well as the opportunity to return and pay it forward “at least three more times,” she said.
Although she did not interact with the families much, that the gravity of her efforts was evident.
“As soon as we walked in, it hit us right in the face,” Santiago said. “There was a child with her mother in the kitchen; she was probably about 5 years old and she lacked hair. You could just tell that he had gone through a sickness.”
Still, many families expressed gratitude. Santiago was humbled.
“It was very gratifying,” she said of the experience. “Sometimes you don’t feel like you have a lot, but you do. If you [could] just go in and rock some babies, or , help feed a family, or even give them books that you don’t read anymore. You have more than you think you do.”
Chef Gee takes this spirit with her now. “If I’m in line, I like paying for someone’s coffee,” she said, a smile in her voice. “People don’t expect that.”
Indeed, the experience with Ronald McDonald House Charities, of paying it forward to those who need it, will forever be with Santiago.
And she’s loving it.