Cooking Up Support for Veterans Through Kitchen Renovations

Photos by David Laurell / Burbank Leader Quartermaster Juan Guillen with project co-chairs Marisa Di Domenico and Asif Sheikh pose for a photo in the soon-to-be-refurbished VFW Post 8310 kitchen.

First published in the Jan. 29, 2022, print issue of the Burbank Leader.

While the goal of participants in the Leadership Burbank program is to gain enhanced leadership qualities, a better understanding of the city and develop ideas and solutions that make Burbank a stronger, more sustainable and vibrant community, there is something else each class does.

For more than a quarter-century, about 500 Leadership Burbank participants have taken on 21 community projects that have supported local nonprofit organizations.

This year, the 27 members of Leadership Burbank’s class of 2022 have made the decision to support the Burbank Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8310 by providing much-needed renovations and upgrades to their kitchen.

Formally adopted as the Mess Kitchen Project, the class has chosen two of their own, local businesswoman Marisa Di Domenico and Asif Sheikh, who is an engineer with Burbank Water and Power, to serve as co-chairs of the undertaking.

During a recent walk-through of the kitchen, Di Domenico, Sheikh and class member Romik Hacobian met with Quartermaster Juan Guillen, who oversees Post 8310’s property, facilities and funds and longtime post member Pete Nicholas, both of whom are veterans of the Iraq War.

“I was totally unaware of all the VFW has done for so many different local nonprofit organizations over the years,” Di Domenico said. “I thought they just gave veterans a place to have comradery and support, but when we first met with them, I quickly learned that they do so much more.”

Iraq War veteran and VFW Post 8310 member Pete Nicholas (right) and Juan Guillen discuss the upgrades and refurbishing that will be provided by Leadership Burbank’s class of 2022.

Having a long history of helping others, Post 8310 has made staging pancake breakfast fundraisers an integral part of their dedication to the community.

“Our class looked at many worthy projects, but we felt by giving the VFW a more functional kitchen, we were actually helping many different organizations who will benefit [by their philanthropy],” Di Domenico said. “We were also all very aware of how much Burbank supports and honors its veterans, and we wanted to be a part of that, to give back to those who have not only served our community, but our country.”

Guillen, who himself was a member of the Leadership Burbank class of 2006, said that he and the post members were thrilled when they learned they had been selected to reap the benefits from this year’s class.

“When they came to me with the idea, I told them we could definitely use some love,” Guillen said. “And the timing is right. During the pandemic, we have been taking advantage of being closed for events to do a facelift of our community hall to better utilize our space. But we didn’t have the funding to upgrade the kitchen. So, by their doing this, it will make a huge difference in what we can do for our members and other organizations.”

According to Sheikh, the selection of the VFW as their project came to fruition after class members had broken out into pitch teams.

“As small groups, they were able to come up with many different ideas and then pitch their top two ideas to the full class for a vote,” Sheikh explained. “It was Henry Garay, who serves as a lieutenant with the Burbank Police Department, who came up with the idea to help the VFW, and we were all on board with it.”

The Mess Kitchen Project, which will replace existing out-of-date kitchen fixtures including the range hood, exhaust fan and evaporative cooler, has been budgeted at $40,000, funds that are now being raised by the class of 2022.

“We will be doing a social media campaign and fundraising events at local restaurants. In fact, we have already started doing that,” Di Domenico said. “We also have an event planned for late February and have established a GoFundMe campaign.”

Romik Hacobian, Asif Sheikh and Marisa Di Domenico of Leadership Burbank survey the VFW kitchen they will soon be dramatically changing.

Hoping to have secured the funding, the class plans to see construction on the post’s kitchen commence in April.

“We have contractors lined up and are ready to go,” Sheikh said. “We believe the project should take about three weeks, but that could change. While we need $40,000 for materials and construction services for the current scope of work, we are hoping to exceed our fundraising goal so we can do some other things. As is, we plan on doing new lighting, drywall and plumbing work, but depending on what we raise, we will also be looking at doing new cabinetry and some other cosmetic add-ons.”

Calling the kitchen “the heart of the VFW hall,” Hacobian said he and his fellow class members are all excited to be embracing this project that will provide meals to local veterans and the Burbank community.

“This is the first project in the history of the Leadership Burbank to focus entirely on the Burbank veteran community,” Hacobian said. “We are very proud of that.”

Nicholas, who is working closely with Guillen and the project team, said that he and other VFW members are grateful for the help Leadership Burbank is giving them.

“It has meant so much and is really an incredible gift,” said Nicholas, who encourages all eligible veterans to reach out and become a part of Post 8310. “As soldiers, it is our job to take care of people and situations, so we’re not used to being taken care of by others.”

“That feeling, that they are not taken care of, needs to change,” Sheikh said. “By increasing their food service capabilities, and extending the lifespan of their kitchen, this is the ideal project to show them we see and support them. Breaking bread is a healing thing, so providing them with a fully-functioning kitchen is our way of showing them that change is taking place and we care about them and their needs.”

To make a donation to the Mess Kitchen Project, or to find about their upcoming fundraising events, visit

DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at or (818) 563-1007.