Since 2008, the Culinary Futures program has presented numerous scholarships to support students in their career path. Here are a few of their success stories.


Mariely Santisteban Shares Her Culinary Futures Experience

Story Spotlights

During her sophomore year at Neal F. Simeon Career Academy, a vocational high school on the South Side of Chicago, Danielle (Dani) Thomas’ grandfather, who had worked at the Academy, suggested she apply to the culinary arts program. Intrigued by his suggestion, and also inspired by her “Granny’ who loved to cook, Thomas applied for the program.

While she was not accepted to the program which had been filled to capacity, Thomas took to heart one of her favorite quotes from one of her favorite television shows, The Office: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This Michael Scott/Wayne Gretzky quote, along with a bit of advice from her mother, who always reminded her that, “The worst they can say is, ‘No,’” Dani decided to push forward. She asked, or rather “begged,” (as she put it) to be admitted to the program. Her perseverance was rewarded and she was accepted into the program.

It was through this program, which was also supported by the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) that she met Nicola Copeland, currently Interim Executive Director of No Matter What. Copeland served as a mentor throughout Thomas’s studies, reminding her, “The sky is the limit. Don’t let anyone put you in a box and tell you there are limitations to what you can accomplish.”

While at Simeon, she applied for the C-CAP scholarship program in her junior year for a spot at a nutrition camp, and also in her senior for a post-high school scholarship. She was awarded a full scholarship ($47,000) and applied to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago. While there, she embraced all opportunities as many of the chefs and instructors took her under their wings.

Near the end of the 2-year program at Le Cordon Bleu, she interview on campus with Disney to be admitted into their college culinary program. She was accepted, and within a few months, she headed to Orlando to finish her Bachelor’s degree with Disney.

“I was so lonely while in Florida,” Thomas explained. “I cried a lot. I missed my siblings, and my mom, who told me to ‘push through’ the program.”

She did just that, working long hours, 6 days a week, with the knowledge that if she put in the work, she would enjoy the outcome she desired. “No one knew me here at Disney,” she recalled. “So, I had to put in the work, to make a name for myself.”

Despite missing her family, at the end of her studies, she decided to stay on with Disney as a prep chef. During her time in this position, she realized that this was merely a ‘stepping stone’ for her. “I didn’t truly know which career path to take, but I knew I needed to make a change."

She decided to move to Atlanta. “I had no idea what I’d do. No job. No place to stay, but I’d figure it out when I got there.” Thomas soon joined Crowne Plaza in Midtown Atlanta in a sales administration position and quickly began to enjoy the hotel and hospitality side of things. It was there that another mentor emerged. “As I began to learn the ins and outs of contracts, proposals, and details,” Thomas explained, “she kept pushing me to be the best that I could be.” Eventually, Marriott came knocking and Thomas transitioned to an event manager position, followed by another serving as a senior event planner at a Marriott property managed by Davidson Hospitality Group.

Despite being furloughed for a period of time during the height of the pandemic, the family-oriented company eventually brought her back to work in a position in the corporate office as an office coordinator. With a desire to be in a position where she contributed to the bottom line, Dani found herself speaking up for herself. During a conversation with management about her current position, Dani noted that she felt her work was not creating value for the company, and that was what she had desired to do in her career.

After being assured that she was, in fact, creating value for the company, it was Dani’s perseverance in pursuing a position that fulfilled her desires that resulted in a recent promotion. Soon, she will start in her new role as the Corporate Office Manager for the Davidson Hospitality Group in Atlanta.

Through it all, Danielle is humbled by, and thankful for, the opportunity the Culinary Futures scholarship provide her, as well as the mentors who helped guide her along the way. These opportunities and connections served as the support she needed to find her passion. Through it all, Dani heeded the advice from her mother, Copeland, and perhaps Scott/Gretzky, too. Today, as she readies to take on a new role, she is confident of her own advice, “Be hungry for and humble about the opportunities put in front of you.” No doubt, her story doesn’t end there.