When Loretta Bolotin started doing humanitarian work, she jumped in the deep end. “I studied community development and international security at university, which gave me an opportunity to go to Christmas Island and work with new arrivals in the detention center,” she says.

“Connecting with new arrivals and drawing parallels between their stories and those of my classmates and my family hooked me. I loved it, and I’ve loved working with diverse communities ever since.”

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 a first-hand experience of the challenges and opportunities that come with starting a new life in a migrant community,” she says.

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After uni, she continued engaging with migrant communities in Melbourne and Sydney, working at the Australian Red Cross, Life Without Barriers and House of Welcome in Western Sydney, as well as helping refugees in Egypt 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 a not-for-profit social enterprise helping people who have sought refuge and asylum in Australia. The enterprise upskills refugees through food-based initiatives such as cooking classes, events and helps them make connections, enter the workforce and learn English, among other things. We caught up with Bolotin to discuss how she set up the not-for-profit and what keeps her coming into work each day.

You had some exposure to humanitarian work throughout university and early in your career – why did this lead to you launching Free To Feed?

Growing up in a multicultural community just felt like a space that was part of my personal story [and] something I was so passionate about, so I always leaned towards that kind of work and enjoyed working with refugee communities. Food felt like the natural place to go in terms of supporting new arrivals and building on existing skills. Food brings us together and was a big part of my family – it tends to play a role in the cultures of all communities – so launching Free To Feed came from that concept.

Talk me through a typical day at work, if there is one.

It always starts with coffee! Usually we have some meetings in the morning around planning and events, then I’ll chat with my chefs about new menus. Then I’ll float around the kitchen and check on the participants. Usually they’re trying to feed me, and usually I’ll accept. In the afternoons I’ll work on strategy, crunch some numbers around budgeting, check if there are any cultural milestones coming up and meet with team leaders. On a particularly good day, I might get to try new menu items or run media training for our leadership team.

What do you find rewarding about your job?

When I get to close the computer and see one of our participants from the training program working on the job. Sometimes it’s attending someone’s first cooking class where they share their cultural recipes and get to practice all the training they’ve had, other times it’s refugees from our program in the kitchen, alongside our chefs, cooking for the first time. That’s the work, working. That’s why we come in every day and work so bloody hard. Seeing the faces and the sense of pride and achievement of the program participants.

What are some of the challenging aspects of this role?

Trying to find a balance is hard. As a small startup and social enterprise that also operates in a fast-paced hospitality environment, the hardest thing is keeping tabs on not only my own wellbeing but my team’s wellbeing. All the refugees in our program are paid employees ranging from full-time to casual, so I feel a strong responsibility for ensuring that we’re getting them great gigs, the catering arm is thriving and tickets are selling to events. When you’re building people’s skills and providing them with an income stream, you’ve got a major responsibility in people’s lives.

So how do you handle that responsibility when you’re having an off day, or things aren’t going to plan?

Most of the time if I feel off, I just need to take a nap and have a cup of coffee to get back on track. I usually have the opposite problem where I have to pull my energy back – I get too excited and work at a hundred miles an hour, which is not sustainable. The most important thing at work is sustainability. Like any job, it can be hard or frustrating at times, but the purpose of our mission is so palpable that I don’t really lack motivation or feel demoralised here, which is amazing.

What’s some advice you’d give to your younger self?

Be patient that you’ll be able to grow something from nothing. Have trust in yourself, your ideas and your community, and in order to build a community around an idea or a person, start sharing it. If you build something, people will come. People will share in your vision if you’re honest about it and back yourself.

Do you have any passion projects on the side? What’s life like outside of work?

I’m a mother with two young kids, who are three and seven. They’re a massive part of my world so a lot of my spare time is spent trying to be a good mum and be present for them. And swimming – it’s not a side hustle, but I 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’m just floating! Being in the ocean is a counterbalance to all that cognitive work during the week and then the physical labour of raising kids; just dipping into salt water makes me feel better. You could say my passion project is floating around in the ocean.

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