Sunday, February 24, 2008

Serving up Second Chances

BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- "Heroin, cocaine, alcohol...whatever was on the table, I wanted it," recalls Baltimore native Tyrone Lewis, who struggled with drug addiction for most of his life.

His addictions made it impossible for him to hold a job very long. For a time, he was homeless.
"After a while you just feel ... alone," says Lewis. "That made me want to give up. "

But that all changed when he met Galen Sampson, a five-star chef who offered Lewis the chance to join Chefs in the Making, a culinary training program that offers jobs and education to people who've been homeless, or have struggled with addiction. For Lewis, it was the chance of a lifetime.

"He was offering me a free education," Lewis says. "What he was doing gave me hope."
For many years, hope has been in short supply in parts of Baltimore. While some areas have been revitalized, much of the city is plagued by crime, poverty and drugs. According to the Census Bureau, nearly 23 percent of residents live below the poverty line and the city has an estimated 60,000 addicts.

As a chef at one of Baltimore's elite hotels, Sampson often saw his employees struggling with these problems in their own families. When he met his wife, Bridget, a writer who ran literacy programs in the city, he got involved with her work and wanted to do more. "I was a chef; that's what I was good at," Sampson recalls. "How could I apply what I did to help?"

Sampson had always dreamed of having his own restaurant. So in 2005, he and Bridget decided to create a socially responsible business that could address some of Baltimore's problems. They decided that part of their restaurant would be a training program, and Chefs in the Making was born.

In many respects, Chefs in the Making is run like any other culinary school. Apprentices take classes four hours a week and the rest of the time, they work at The Dogwood, Sampson's restaurant, which also includes a deli and catering business. Students not only earn a living and learn a trade, but they also build a job history.

The program has partnered with other programs to give apprentices additional support; there's even a counselor on staff who meets with them every couple of weeks. For Tyrone Lewis, the restaurant itself is a refuge.

"Here there are no secrets," Lewis says. "Most of us just know we are people who are trying to get our lives back together. "

Sampson admits this unorthodox approach had its skeptics. "A lot of people think we're crazy. We've pretty much put everything that we have into this project," he says. But for Sampson, it's well worth the risk. "To see what our apprentices have been able to do here has been very rewarding. I think we're setting the foundation for something good," he says.

In 2008, Chefs in the Making intends to provide training/jobs to more than 30 people. Apprentices make up about 25 percent of the restaurant staff and Lewis' own situation suggests what potential the program has to change lives. "Ten years from now, I see myself owning a home, maybe owning my own business," he says.

It's a future that he wouldn't have dreamed was possible before meeting Sampson. "A lot of people say they want to help," says Lewis. "Galen actually makes a difference."

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