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Inspired by Leonardo

Inspired by Leonardo

By: Ricardo Sanchez Puente

Earlier this month, when our small group of Culinary and Hospitality Institute students arrived in Mexico City for the tamal competition, we knew we had hard work ahead of us.

With such talented fellow competitors, our hope was simple—that students would gain valuable culinary experiences, grow their skills, and build connections. In the end, we did so much more than that.

On competition day, our students worked the masa dough like pros. In the melting pot of Mexico City, there are so many varieties of tamales—but the ones our students prepared stood out. They used their home-grown spices and ingredients to create an exceptionally flavorful filling, and then wrapped it all in banana leaves and cooked it to perfection.

And they won.

They won the whole competition. Much to everyone’s surprise, the judges chose the tamales prepared by a small group of students from Quintana Roo—students that you and I know are exceptional. Students we believe in and invest in each and every day.

Two of these students—Leonardo and Vasti—worked together to take first place against students from all over the country who have many more years of formal training and resources available to them.

After celebrating our achievements and enjoying the sights and foods of Mexico City, we boarded the plane and returned to Quintana Roo. Upon our return, Leonardo invited me to cook and enjoy dinner with him and his family. I gladly accepted—and it was an amazing experience for me.

First, we went hunting together. Leonardo showed me how to shoot small game, which we brought back to the dirt patio next to his family’s home. Leonardo started a fire on a homemade stove made from two cement blocks and space for firewood. It’s where he first learned to cook—and where he has continued to hone his craft as he builds new skills at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute. Using a small pan balanced over the flames, he cooked the meat perfectly. We feasted on delicious sereque—Yucatan cooked squirrel—with roasted tomatoes and onions.

As I looked around, I was overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. This young man grew up with so few resources—but he has risen to the top of all the culinary students in the nation.

And friends, this is exactly why Hands Offering Hope exists. Because of people like Leonardo and their exceptional potential. Because we believe that young people can do incredible things, regardless of their surroundings, beginnings, or circumstances.

Leonardo had the determination, the potential, and the skill. And YOU gave him the resources and opportunities he needed to thrive.

Leonardo told us that his mom and aunts got him excited about cooking when he was 17—but he had a huge challenge. There was no culinary school nearby—much less one he could afford.

When he heard Hands Offering Hope was starting a Culinary Institute, he jumped at the opportunity. And ever since he was accepted, he has excelled. What’s more, he has enjoyed every minute—and he dreams of leading a culinary team of his own one day.

Thanks to his drive and your generosity, I know it won’t be long before he sees that dream come true.


You can do anything!

We are with you

Know that you are supported by so many who believe in you and are rooting you on as you pursue your dreams!

Submitted by Courtney Hartl

You can do anything!

Cheering you on

I am constantly in awe of the dedication and energy that you bring to the table. Your passion for life and your commitment to making your dreams a reality is truly special. This International Women’s Day I am so proud to cheer you on from afar!

Submitted by Ian Haisley

Operation Graduate Professionals Panel

Operation Graduate Professionals Panel

As part of our Operation Graduate program, we welcomed a panel of professionals to Casa Hope to discuss how they chose their careers and share the challenges they overcame to pursue them.

One of the best parts of this event was seeing Iran Armando Pool Kumul, a member of the very first class of Michael Lotito Fellows, up on the panel! He graduated with a degree in tourism business management and development, and he shared with the students that the lessons he learned at Hands Offering Hope were a huge part of pushing him to where he is now.

It was so awesome to have these professionals at Casa Hope, and we hope our students believe that if our panelists can do it, so can they!

Visiting Chefs

Visiting Chefs

Omar Mendiola Flores, the executive chef of Punta Corcho restaurant, and Chef Diana Puente, of the Muelle 11 restaurant, visited Casa Hope and presented a mini masterclass on new cooking techniques to our Culinary Institute students.

Chef Diana taught students how to perfect grouper and cucumber ceviche while sharing a powerful word for the women: “Life in the kitchen isn’t easy, but remember, if a man can do it, so can we.”

Chef Omar made Ensenada-style tacos and shared advice and tips for the young culinary trainees.

We are so grateful for these incredibly talented chefs visiting us and sharing their wisdom with our students!

Festival de Raíces y Tradiciones

Festival de Raíces y Tradiciones

This year, to celebrate Día de los Muertos, we planned and hosted a special three-day event called “Festival of Roots and Traditions.” Casa Hope was overflowing with yellow marigold petals, flickering candles, brightly colored banners, carefully crafted altars, and students in swirling traditional dresses.

Our culinary students made 120 loaves of delectable “pan de muerto” sweet bread for the event, as well as atole and tamales in banana leaves. Leadership Club and Operation Graduate students crafted several exquisite altars traditional to different parts of Mexico, and we also hosted a fascinating presentation by Kantunilkín’s official chronicler who told traditional Mayan legends.

It was a packed weekend, but one full of celebration, laughter, great food, and lots of learning!