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December 17, 2017

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Salvation Army has a recipe for second chances

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Christopher DeVargas

Executive Chef Jeremy Woods prepares for the lunch-time meal, one of 4 meals the Salvation Army prepares for the public at their downtown Las Vegas Dining Facility, Monday, July 31, 2017.

Salvation Army Chef Program

Executive Chef Jeremy Woods prepares for the lunch-time meal, one of 4 meals the Salvation Army prepares for the public at their downtown Las Vegas Dining Facility, Monday, July 31, 2017. Launch slideshow »

The Salvation Army kitchen is in full swing as staff cooks and volunteers begin prepping one of several meals being served that day. Two workers chop onions and tomatoes while another two combine ground beef and spices in a large, metal pot.

Around the corner from it all is executive chef Jeremy Wood, who is taking out racks of cooked chicken for club sandwiches. This is a typical Monday inside his kingdom.

Wood has the hustle down after years of practice. You’d never guess that not so long ago, he was an out-of-work web designer living on the streets.

Coming to Salvation Army as a client, he discovered the nonprofit offered a 10-week culinary training certification that could point him toward a new career.

“Being homeless is like being in the ocean,” he said. “This was like a raft to climb into.”

Salvation Army partners with the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada Job Connect to make the program possible. Each semester, about 15 participants take classes from CSN culinary arts professors at an accelerated pace. The instruction is free, and students are provided with uniforms and some essential equipment, such as a knife set.

While students spend five-hour days training intensively over a 10-week period learning such skills as basic cooking or garde manger (dealing with cold foods such as salad), they stay on the Salvation Army campus and receive any needed wraparound services to support their independence.

“It’s to help them find long-term success,” Wood said.

As graduation nears, the students are given information about job prospects and helped with finding employment.

Huckleberry Willis, 47, is a 2016 graduate. A court had given him the choice between jail time and rehab, and after choosing the latter, he learned about the vocational training offered by the Salvation Army. He had worked as a line cook, but this would be his first formal training.

“The kitchen feels like home to me,” said Willis, who found work through the Culinary Union and hopes to land a restaurant job on the Strip. “I think this saved my life.”

About 500 students have gone through the program since it started in 1998, all a little down on their luck and looking for a way to turn their lives around.

A little over a year ago, Irene Malaia, 48, was staying at the Shade Tree shelter. Today, she has her own apartment and a job as a cook at the Salvation Army.

“Life would have been totally different without this program,” she said. “My case manager told me about it and thought I’d be good at it.”

The program allowed her to get formal training in her passion and obtain college credit.

“It was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it,” Malaia said.

Wood never forgets how it felt to go from living paycheck to paycheck to losing his contracts and watching his money dwindle to nothing.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “All I saw in movies was people standing around a burning oil drum in an alley. I knew nothing about homelessness.”

Wood found more than shelter at the Salvation Army. Though he wanted to stay in web design, he thought the industry had advanced too much and that going back to school to catch up would be too costly. Though his only experience in food and beverage was as a server, he was determined to go through the Salvation Army’s culinary program.

After graduation, he took an entry-level cook position at the Salvation Army. “I took it as a way to get some money backed up,” said Wood, who spent two years in that position before becoming the assistant executive chef and then executive chef in the spring. “Turns out, I really liked it here.”

“Seeing him and what he accomplished makes me know it’s possible for my life,” said 32-year-old Monica McCoy, who’ll start the program this fall. “He might not know this, but I became his little shadow. He is a really great teacher.”

The past few months have been hard for McCoy, who lost her job in April and has been dealing with bouts of depression, alcoholism and homelessness. She started on a friend’s couch, then relocated to a weekly motel. With no other option, McCoy began sleeping in her car, moving from location to location. “Then one day I woke up and realized I was alone and homeless,” she said.

McCoy started going to Alcoholics Anonymous to contend with her drinking problem and ended up at the Salvation Army’s overnight shelter. One day over her morning cigarette, she and another resident began to talk.

“He told me I should go volunteer in the kitchen,” McCoy said. “I’ve worked at Pizza Hut and Quiznos, but never a kitchen like this setting.”

Her first task on Wood’s crew was cracking eggs, making sure she did it perfectly and no shells got in. The more she learned, the more strongly she felt pulled to the kitchen.

“I realized I’ve always wanted to be a chef,” she said. “Something went wrong along the way, and I had to focus on being stable and finding a stable home. I never got to focus on what I wanted to do. I never graduated from high school, so I feel like an adult to be able to go to college. I feel like telling the whole world, ‘Hey, I’m going to school.’ Just because you live at the Salvation Army or are homeless down here, doesn’t mean you have to be a victim of your circumstances.”

This fall, McCoy will be joined by fellow student Eric Holzinger, 39. Similar to Wood, he spent most of his career in graphic design. When he moved to Las Vegas this year for a change of scenery, things went awry when he had a seizure and ended up in the hospital for five weeks. He also lost his identification during that period.

With no place to stay following his release, Holzinger came to the Salvation Army, where he started volunteering in the kitchen.

He enrolled in the culinary program hoping it could lead to better job prospects.

“The start of school is the start of my new beginning,” he added.

Right now, the program is offered twice a year, but Wood said there is talk among the partners of adding a summer session.

His next big idea is to start a food truck run by the culinary students to give them a real-world experience dealing with customers. They already have a truck on campus and are looking at licensing and equipment. Wood said the goal is to have it up and running by the end of the year. Wood hasn’t thought about a name, but knows the menu would rotate themes. Any revenue generated from the truck would go back into the Salvation Army.

“It’s a big dream,” he added, “but not as far-fetched as it sounds.”

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