By Elizabeth Cook

RICHMOND (KPIX 5) – From serving thousands of homeless people, to giving etiquette classes to kids, this week’s Jefferson Award winner has made it her mission to give back.

Menbere Aklilu works 12 hours a day, seven days a week as the owner of the popular Salute e Vita Ristorante in Marina Bay, Richmond. But what she often serves up for her community, isn’t something you’ll find on the menu.

“You have to sit down straight, no elbow on the table,” she said, explaining what she tells school children at special weekend lunches. “When you cut, don’t fly (your elbow with your knife); it’s very important.”

Several times a year, Aklilu hosts an etiquette class for a group of children who otherwise wouldn’t get an opportunity to learn these skills. She serves them a four-course mean, a crash course in table manners, and life lessons.

“She taught us how her life went from being very hard to her life being this positive role model,” one girl said.

Raised by a single mother in Ethiopia, Aklilu witnessed her mother’s murder when she was only ten. She later became a victim of domestic violence. So Salute wasn’t just a job, it was a second chance.

“I am so fortunate,” she told KPIX 5. “I’m so blessed,  I’m so lucky.”

Aklilu came to America from Italy 25 years ago, and was hired as a hostess at Salute.

“I was so happy to make $7 an hour and answer the phone,” she remembered.

She quickly rose through the ranks, became a manager, and with the help of generous patron, was able to buy the restaurant. The experience made her keen to pay it forward.

A few years ago, she began feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving: 300 the first year, 600 the next. And last year, she served 1300 people, also providing free flu shots and medical checkups. It’s a commitment Aklilu holds close to her heart, because before she came here, she was homeless herself.

After escaping a husband who almost killed her, Aklilu found herself pregnant and living in a shelter run by Mother Theresa.

“Everyday I remember how it was – shelter life, being homeless, being lonely,” she said.

Now her life is anything but lonely, filled with the passion of helping others. So for making a difference once meal at a time, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Menbya Aklilu.


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