Meet the former teacher who has overcome her own barriers as a parent carer and is now helping other disadvantaged Sunderland women
A former teacher who had to give up her job to focus on caring for the health needs of her son is now using cooking as a vehicle to help other disadvantaged women overcome their own barriers.
After spending the early part of her working life as a chef in the catering industry, Jo Gordon trained as a food and textiles teacher before enjoying a 14 year career at St Anthony's Girls' Catholic Academy.
However, in 2018, her life changed direction and she left her role to focus on her family.
Jo said: “I’ve been a single parent for 14 years and in 2018 I made the decision to leave teaching to focus on caring for the health needs of my son. I left because it got to the point where I couldn’t be the parent carer I wanted to be while at the same time being the teacher I also wanted to be.
"I feel this helps me to relate to the women who I now support who have their own barriers, many of whom are in a similar position of having to continue paying the bills while being carers for children with health issues.”
After leaving the teaching profession, Jo began to research organisations and enterprises which use food as a vehicle to break down social and economic barriers.
In the final years of her teaching career she had also already become passionate about addressing the issue of food waste.
Jo said: “During my time teaching I became aware of the ethics and morals around food, and in particular food waste. I used to visit Tesco on my way to school to collect food which was otherwise going to go to landfill, and I would redistribute it to asylum seeker projects and the Salvation Army.
"After leaving teaching I became food bank coordinator for Sunderland and I met a lot of people who were disadvantaged, struggling and facing barriers to being successful.”
Having left her career due to the challenges in her own personal life, Jo decided she wanted to help other women overcome their own barriers and as a qualified food teacher she decided to use her culinary skills to help bring about change.
In January 2022 she established My Sister’s Kitchen, a community interest company (CIC) which welcomes women from across the city to take part in a range of cookery classes at the company’s Co-op Centre while also developing friendships and a range of social skills.
Jo said: “The classes are designed to help women with barriers which could be having been victims of domestic abuse, unemployment, being a parent carer or lack of education.
"The women are referred to us from the charity Wearside Women in Need as well as young women who have come out of being in care as children. A lot of women also sign up after seeing us on social media.
"We welcome women of all different ages.”
My Sister’s Kitchen has now supported dozens of Wearside women on a range of courses.
Jo said: “We ran a six month course called Learn Cook Eat Share Repeat. With the cost of living at the moment, we looked at how to cook healthy and nutritious meals on a budget. The places where these women live, they may not have access to a cooker and so we also looked at how you can make dishes like curries and chili con carne in a microwave.
"We have also teamed up with Fit Kat Coaching, a female only gym upstairs. The women cook nutritious healthy meals before doing a boxercise session in the gym and then we all come back downstairs to enjoy the food we have cooked.”
While the sessions don’t teach specific qualifications, a key aim is to also help the women take the first-steps to getting back into education or employment.
Jo added: “Because of what a lot of these women have been through, some of them lack the self-esteem to go to college or get back into employment.
"Our ultimate goal is to help give women the confidence to get back into employment or education. By attending these sessions it hopefully gives these women the belief they can learn new skills which they can then take forward to enrolling on whole range of courses they may have an interest in.
"The courses also tackle social isolation with people who may have similar lived experiences able to develop friendships. We can also point people in need of additional help in the right direction whether it be food banks, clothing banks or financial advise on dealing with budgets and managing debt.”
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It’s not just women who have benefited from My Sister’s Kitchen with the CIC also running its Friday Men’s Pie Club, supporting men with “loneliness and mental health issues”, as well as over 70 children taking part in cookery classes as part of Sunderland City Council’s Fancy a Day Out Programme.
Jo said: “During the school holidays the children came in two days a week where they enjoyed making real pasta, pizzas and healthy doughnuts and sausage rolls. To ensure they get a healthy meal, any food they made they could take home to eat with their family.”
So where would Jo like to see her business in five years time?
She added: “Ultimately my vision is to emulate the Luminary Bakery in London. They are a social enterprise which provides training, employment and support to some of the most disadvantaged women who may have been involved in domestic abuse, trafficking or sexual exploitation.
"Hopefully by then we will have our own cafe which will also be making produce for other food outlets and I will be employing people who have otherwise struggled to access the jobs market.”
Anyone who would like to enrol on a course can do so via the My Sisters’ Kitchen website or link tree.