Food for the Journey

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Carl knows his way around lots of professional kitchens, but he found his calling cooking for YouthLink’s Drop-In Center, where he has presided as chef and kitchen manager for 20 years.

Carl has supervised the creation of tens of thousands of meals for young people experiencing homelessness. “Good food is a great way to break down barriers. Many of the young people who come to YouthLink have been very isolated.”

Carl says, “Just like everyone else, they’re all on a journey. But sometimes, they can only focus on what they need to survive until tomorrow. Food is comforting and satisfying, but hot meals at the Drop-In Center provide a lot more. It’s their chance to see that they’re not alone, to hear about other resources we offer, and to make contact with YouthLink case managers. It’s really the first step to their futures.”

While food offers a stable foundation to build on education and employment goals, for some, it paves the way to a new career. Carl employs young people in his kitchen, where he teaches them job skills, responsibility, and culinary arts.

“Carl teaches us how to give people good service in addition to good food. When you’re in Carl’s kitchen, you work hard and learn all kinds of stuff, like how to be on time, present yourself, and be a reliable worker”, says Mike*, one of Carl’s kitchen staff.

“It’s consistency that they want—something to count on, and a fresh start. In my kitchen, trust and reliability are the first ingredients”, says Carl.

And building relationships based on trust works. Carl’s young employees know he has high expectations, and they work hard to meet them. He smiles, remembering James*, “He was so quick—there wasn’t anything he couldn’t learn. But one day he started acting out, doing things he knew better than doing. So I took him off kitchen duty.”

“Holding him accountable changed his attitude. He’d talk to me about taking him back, or offer to volunteer his help when we were short staffed. He would tell the other youth ‘don’t do what I did, that was a mistake.’ So I offered him a second chance. Now he’s back on track, focused and working on his career.”

For many youth, unreliable access to food is the first, and biggest, barrier they face on their journey to independence. Devon, one of Carl’s kitchen staff says, “When you see someone come in, and they’re cold and hungry, there’s a lot going on in their head. But once they get some food, real, good food, you see those walls come down.”

“And that’s why they come back meal after meal,” says Carl. “They know they’re connected to something bigger here. I love what I do. Best job I ever had.”

*Names changed to protect privacy

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