The Chef and the Dentist Caring for Philadelphia’s Immigration Population

While James Beard-award winning Chef Jose Garces, who owns dozens of restaurants nationwide, gained national recognition when he defeated popular chef Bobby Flay on an episode of Iron Chef America, he’s known in Philadelphia as a champion of the underserved. In 2012, Chef Garces and his then-wife, Dr. Beatriz Garces, created the Garces Foundation to provide education, healthcare, and other services to immigrants in Philadelphia.

“In the restaurant business, Jose was in contact with a lot of immigrant workers, and I was one of the only volunteers to work with immigrant patients, especially from the restaurant community,” says Dr. Garces, a dentist born in Cuba. Chef Garces is an Ecuadoran-American born in Chicago. “We saw the struggles of their day-to-day lives and their lack of access to social services, but we also saw how hardworking these people are and how much they contribute to the city of Philadelphia.”

The Garces Foundation primarily serves Hispanic immigrants, mostly because of their personal connections to the Hispanic community and because many people learn about their services through word-of-mouth within that community.

Tipping Point

While the couple, who are now divorced but remain close and run their foundation together, contributed to numerous nonprofits in the city, they wanted to focus their philanthropy on the population they knew best and to address problems they saw firsthand, such as young people losing their teeth because of a lack of dental care, and diabetes. The tipping point that led them to start their own foundation came in 2010, when a young man named Felipe who worked in one of Chef Garces’ restaurants went to Dr. Garces.

“He was clearly very ill, but he avoided seeking medical care because he had a cousin who had been deported after going to an emergency room when he was in a car accident,” Dr. Garces says. “Felipe turned out to have metastatic thyroid cancer.” Had he sought treatment sooner, he likely would have had a different prognosis, she recalls. “We helped him with every possible medical assistance, but it was too late. We helped send him home to Mexico so he could be with his family. He passed away at only 26.”

This tragedy served as a catalyst to create programs that provide access to medical and dental care, English lessons geared to proficiency for careers, classes for entrepreneurs, and GED classes.

“They started with quarterly medical and dental clinics,” says Robin Morris, executive director of the Garces Foundation. “Then Jose pointed out that these are the hardest-working people, who work every shift and stay late, but they’re stuck in the lowest paying jobs. He suggested we start teaching English but focused on professional language.”

GED classes were added later, mostly serving working women. “Philadelphia provides a scholarship to community college for people who earn their GED, so we’re encouraging students to further their education that way,” Morris says.

Some programs have evolved in the decade since the Garces Foundation started.

“Our English curriculum was restaurant-focused at first, but then housecleaners and construction workers and retail workers joined, so we adapted the classes,” she says. “Later we added a class for entrepreneurs.”

Success Stories

The Garces Foundation has helped thousands of immigrants in Philadelphia in various ways over the past decade, but perhaps one of their best success stories involves Olivia Ponce, who used to clean restaurants and now does lab work.

“I took English classes two or three times a week for two years and was in the food industry before the pandemic,” Ponce says. “When the city closed, I lost my job and then I got Covid. I was really worried about how to feed my family and I called Jillian [Gierke, the director of programs for the Garces Foundation] and asked for help.”

That phone call inspired the Foundation to pivot and create a food pantry to provide boxes of fresh, culturally appropriate groceries, enough to feed a family of four for a week.

“We packed the food in empty restaurants and there were lines around the block of people who needed food,” Morris says. “We asked for funds to help provide the food and we were amazed by the support we received. One hedge fund raised $388,000 for us.”

When Ponce recovered, she quickly volunteered to deliver food door-to-door to people in need. She continues to volunteer with the food pantry today.

“Dr. Garces got Covid tests for our community and then she opened a clinic to provide Covid testing and invited me to work with her there,” Ponce said. “Then she was asked to provide services at a homeless shelter, and she hired me to do Covid tests there.”

Ponce and her son now both work at homeless shelters after being trained by the Garces Foundation to provide services such as lab tests. “I’m finishing my GED and getting tutored by volunteers, then I plan to go to community college,” Ponce says. “My son is in college now and my daughter is a teacher.”

Dr. Garces takes pride in the growth of the Garces Foundation programs, as well as the name recognition the organization has achieved. “We’re a safe haven and a trusted source for people and we can guide them to other resources, too,” she says.

Morris estimates that more than 1,750 people receive support annually from the Garces Foundation in the form of medical and dental care, education, and food.

“The greatest accomplishment has been the cumulative effects of over a decade of service into the community we serve,” Chef Garces says. “It’s the hard work and dedication of staff, volunteers and board members to continually do the work, day in and day out. It’s a huge effort. I’m really proud that through the ups and downs, we have been resilient and able to continue our work.”

Funding the Foundation

Initially, the Foundation was primarily funded with financial support from the Garces Restaurant Group, along with sponsors from vendors and affiliated businesses. In 2016, the organization received grant funds from family foundations.

“Our budget now is about $800,000, with $350,000 of that from in-kind donations such as the volunteer medical care at quarterly clinics and the weekly free dental care,” Morris says. “We receive about $150,000 to $200,000 in grant funds, $150,000 from individual donors, and raise about $150,000 through our annual fundraiser.”

The Garces Foundation receives donations from companies such as Whole Foods, Citizens Bank, Wawa, Arway Linen, and Tito’s Handmade Vodka. The City of Philadelphia provides a small amount of funding, and another nonprofit provides some funds for the English classes, Dr. Garces says.

Future Growth for the Garces Foundation

Dr. Garces says she’s “amazed” that after a decade and the pandemic that the organization is still around. “We don’t have any excess money, but we have a super-committed staff,” she says. “We’ve been able to grow our programs and are now piloting a program with a partner organization to provide mental health therapy online and in person.”

While so far the nonprofit remains focused on the needs in Philadelphia, Chef Garces says that they hope to expand their programs nationally in alignment with strategic partners. First, they plan to expand regionally.

“The priorities haven’t changed, but the methods have,” Chef Garces says. “During the pandemic, in person wasn’t available to us, but through a grant we were able to get laptops for our students and continue to offer educational programs. This taught us that online learning was a viable option for the programs that we have. We’ve been able to maintain flexibility in our programming to help address the needs of our community.”

As Ponce says, “The Garces Foundation is a small organization, but they have a big heart, and they do a lot.”