Recipe for success

Special Issue | Former rescue mission residents cook their way to careers

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007


It's lunchtime on a Thursday at the Cook's Kettle. The chef's special of the day is a hoagie stuffed with hot roast beef, bell peppers and fries on the side. The buffet special tomorrow will be Oriental catfish, a local favorite. What's not on the white board at the front of the restaurant is a notice of what's really special: the restaurant workers themselves. Half of them are former drug addicts or alcoholics. A few are ex-convicts. Some have had serious physical or mental health problems.

Cook's Kettle is the student-operated restaurant of Victory Trade School, a project of Springfield Victory Mission-and catfish isn't the only thing that VTS is known for. Rescue missions from across the country (17 states so far) send men to VTS, where they do not simply work for room and board: They practice running a restaurant and hotel business. As VTS director Victoria Queen said, "They learn to think like the owner of the place."

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The birth of VTS was similar to the dilemma at the Cana water-into-wine wedding feast. A hospitality disaster became a chance for God to intercede and make things better. Springfield Victory Mission, after serving the poor for 21 years, ran out of room and made plans to build elsewhere, but protests from prospective neighbors, along with new zoning ordinances, stopped them. After the city council voted down the building request, the mission directors began thinking about teaching life skills in a trade school setting. They didn't have to look far: A building boarded-up for 17 years was across the street. After fundraising and renovation, VTS opened in fall 2003.

Since then, 30 students have graduated. VTS follows up with the students until 120 days after graduation: 100 percent of the graduates have been fully employed by that time. Queen said people are waiting in line to hire the graduates. The majority of graduates become employed in the Springfield area at upscale restaurants and country clubs.

Along with a virtually guaranteed job start, VTS offers other incentives for students to graduate. Each graduate receives his share of restaurant tips at the end of the program-but he can't just blow the money. Students must fill out a requisition form to release these earnings (an average of $3,000 each) and a staff member needs to approve the request. The mission's thrift store also gives graduates vouchers for basic appliances, furniture, and electronics.

Steven Roberts, a 2006 graduate, began experimenting at age 15 with every type of drug he could find. After two stints in the juvenile court system in California, a judge ordered him to a Teen Challenge program, where Roberts stayed clean and fell in love with cooking. When Roberts' director showed him a VTS newsletter, Roberts thought the program's Christ-centered foundation would give him the security he needed to keep out of old habits, while training him to be better at the job he loved.

At VTS, Roberts gained the experience and certification he needed-and four days after graduation he began working as a line cook at a country club in Springfield. Just last month, Roberts traveled to Orlando to cook alongside Master Chefs. Now 26, Roberts credits God for his success: "I truly believe that if it wasn't for God, I would be dead, or in jail for the rest of my life." Roberts plans to stay in Springfield, learning from the country club's executive chef and living in his first apartment.

The school's 64 percent graduation rate testifies to the success of Christian programs. The graduation rate was only 17 percent during the first year of the school, when students entered VTS after completing a state drug treatment program. After that, Queen decided to focus her recruiting efforts on Christian recovery programs, and she required students to first earn a GED. For men without one, the mission designed a year-long feeder school called PREP (Prayer, Reading scripture, Education and Praise) designed to help students pass their GEDs and gain a solid biblical base. "If they have that biblical foundation, they can handle the stress and conflict so much better," Queen said. "They know where they can go to get their strength."

VTS students need strong motivation to get through their busy schedule. Their weekdays begin at 4 a.m.; they open the restaurant at 6. They serve breakfast until 10:30 a.m., then prepare for lunch. The restaurant closes to the public after lunch, giving time for a crew meeting where the men talk out problems and read customer comment cards. Later in the afternoon, they take classes and spend evenings studying and doing homework. On Sunday mornings, church attendance is required.


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