SPRINGFIELD, Mo.-Eric "Pork Chop" Wallace, 23, yearned to work as a cook, but in job-starved Modesto, Calif., he could not find a gig. His aunt told him about Victory Trade School (VTS) in Springfield, Mo., so in September 2010, he rode on a bus for 72 hours to southwest Missouri.
Tim Bailey, 25, served in Iraq, but found his military experience didn't count for much in the civilian world. Now he and Wallace are scheduled to graduate this fall from VTS Track Two, the culinary arts and hospitality classes.
Bailey first had to complete a year of Track One, a VTS Christian discipleship program called PREP (Prayer, Reading Scripture, Education, and Praise to God for His blessing). He'd been directionless, unmotivated, and living at home. Although neither Bailey nor Wallace had drug or alcohol problems, Bailey says he made "bad, rash" decisions after he got out of the military, so he needed a Christian reboot.
Young men now apply to enter VTS from 15 states, drawn in part by its impressive statistics: an 89.5 percent graduation rate (up from 17 percent when it opened in 2003) and 100 percent job placement for its culinary arts graduates. Springfield-area restaurants are eager to hire them.
But VTS is about callings as much as jobs: It tries to build faith in Christ through regular worship and gospel preaching. Students can apply to start culinary classes in Track Two only if they've completed a Christian discipleship program, either at VTS or elsewhere. A one-month candidacy program before Track One or Track Two tests willingness to follow directions-and it knocks out the recalcitrant.
"They teach you how to be an adult," Bailey said, "and put you through the gamut of what you'd face on the job." Wallace, Bailey, and other students start every day with prayer at a family-style breakfast, where they read and discuss the Bible. They also must attend Sunday morning church services of any Christian denomination. Students who haven't graduated from high school work on their GEDs first.
VTS is a subsidiary of Springfield Victory Mission (see sidebar below), which began 35 years ago when a warm-hearted couple, Everett and Esther Cook, brought free doughnuts or sandwiches and coffee to homeless individuals in Springfield's town square. Today, Mission chaplain Alan Queen interviews newcomers about their family situation and length of sobriety. He knows the lies alcoholics and addicts tell, because Queen himself was a heavy drug user before coming to the Mission.
So are many others in Springfield and vicinity, home to many methamphetamine labs and users. Two hours away from Springfield lies West Plains, the Ozarks town in Winter's Bone, a 2010 Oscar contender for its portrayal of a 17-year-old girl suffering from her dad's meth involvement. Some former meth users come to the Mission and then enter VTS, where there is zero tolerance for drinking or drugging, and abundant hope that God will "convict, convert, save, and sanctify," as Mission executive director Jim Harriger puts it.
Today, the classroom for many VTS students is Cook's Kettle, a popular eatery with a wide variety of customers-judges, lawyers, local construction workers, and others-who pop in for breakfast or lunch. VTS students earn wages and use the money to buy items that don't play to their weaknesses. Tips stay in an account until graduation: That's one more incentive to stay in school.
Other VTS students staff an upscale deli and catering service, the Branch Bistro, on the ground floor of the four-story green glass Assemblies of God headquarters several blocks away. Visitors plus 800 AG headquarters employees can buy lunch there, and VTS students cater AG events and happenings around town. I met VTS students cooking within a labyrinth of stainless steel kitchen pods, and a Victory House grad working the front desk. At the Bistro entrance giant poster boards show "Faces of Victory," men who in 2008 were involved with the Mission.
Only men interested in culinary arts enter Track Two and, upon graduation, receive certificates in seven areas-including food production, customer service, restaurant marketing, and cost controls-that are recognized by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. They generally have their pick of jobs, but graduates of PREP who have overcome their attitude problems are also gaining employment.
One such graduate jumped three weeks later to teaching history at a local university. He'd come in with a master's degree and needed a Christian discipleship program to get back on track. Another man who'd been suicidal came through the entry-level free lodging program at Victory Mission called Transitions. Then he did a "Christian Twelve Steps in Twelve Weeks" program called 12/12, graduated from VTS, and gained a job after graduation.
A man in his 50s who had never held a job for more than two months applied to the trade school. VTS director Victoria Queen, chaplain Alan Queen's wife, asked him, "How on earth will you finish a one-year program when you've never stayed anywhere longer than two months?" "Oh, I just will," he told her. She felt skeptical, but still felt led to accept the man. He did finish at VTS, and four years later remains at the same job.
That man is now an example of what Victoria Queen hopes for: students who emerge debt-free with leadership and management skills, sobriety, accountability, and deep Christian beliefs and behavior. That contrasts with the results of many trade schools, where students graduate with substantial debt but without depth of character.
VTS does not have statistics regarding the long-term career progress of graduates, but the stories are abundant and the program's reputation is strong, as WORLD first learned in 2007, when VTS was a finalist in our second annual Effective Compassion contest. Harriger states that most graduates continue to make professional and personal progress, but he recognizes that some decide not to go the distance: "We can only help someone so long. At some point, they have to become accountable. Sometimes the pull of the old life is too strong for that."
One VTS grad fared poorly on his first try after graduation, Victoria Queen recalls. He took a job at a start-up restaurant where the new-to-restaurant-management owners gave everyone an ill-advised "shift drink." The graduate plunged back into drinking. He'd taken the job against her advice, and recently returned to tell her she could say, "I told you so." She was too polite to say it, but she hopes he's giving sobriety another shot at a St. Louis rehab center.
Pork Chop Wallace says he merely believed in God before he arrived, but at VTS he's learned to trust Him: "You can learn as you go, and if you make mistakes, you can try to get it right next time." Wallace hopes to find a job as a cook at an Italian restaurant in Springfield, where the economic downtown seems to have bypassed restaurants. Bailey, who misses nothing about his hometown in Kansas, also hopes to find work in Springfield, but at a popular, casual place such as Cook's Kettle.
-Mary Hopkins is a Texas journalist
Video and photos by James Allen Walker for WORLD (jamesallenwalker.com)
Victory Trade School
Location: Springfield, Mo.
Size: 17 full-time employees, 16 part-time volunteer faculty members
Number of VTS students: About 70. All have full scholarships or a combination of scholarships and Pell Grants to cover the cost of tuition ($6,000 per year), room and board ($9,100).
Annual Budget: $857,352
Read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2011 on WORLD's Hope Award page.
Springfield Victory Mission serves several levels of need. Men who come off the street can find shelter at Victory Square, which offers low-cost or no-cost lodging for men inside a former nursing home. Those unable to pay can bunk overnight with a free continental breakfast, but they must do chores, attend Bible and sobriety classes, and stick to an early curfew. They have free dinners as long as they attend Victory Mission weeknight chapel services. (They do not have to say anything or participate.)
Men in the Transitions program can stay at the Mission for up to 90 days, unless they break a group living rule. Most stay at least 30 days. Other men stay at the Lodge, which charges $8-$12 per night and invites guests to attend sobriety and Bible classes, or evening chapel (with a meal thrown in). Several Lodge residents have stayed more than two years.
Women can enter a separate live-in program that lasts one year, Victory House. This spring 11 women at Victory House were going through the New Life Program, which parallels PREP. VTS would like to have women in the Culinary Arts program but at present has no housing for them.