Downtown Hope Center launched its workforce development program, Feed Me Hope (FMH) Culinary School and Bakery, in October of 2016. FMH is modeled after a similar program in Seattle WA, called Catalyst Kitchen (CK). Catalyst Kitchen acts as a consulting service to over 60 organizations throughout the United States, guiding them in developing a workforce development model that is supported by social enterprise.
After sending an initial startup team to CK for three days of immersion training the DHC launched Feed Me Hope. Our team consisted of a local chef with twenty-seven years of restaurant experience, a local baker who has owned two successful bakeries and serviced restaurants throughout Anchorage, a life-skills coach, an employment specialist, as well as the development director and executive director.
This past week, the 5th cohort of students graduated from Feed Me Hope after completing an intense 14-week course. They showed up every morning at 10 am and spent the first 1.5 hours in life-skills. This is followed by classroom time reviewing recipes, kitchen math, sanitation, food recognition, food handling, and working towards their food handler cards.Their afternoon was spent in the kitchen preparing the evening meal for our women’s shelter.
During their time in Feed Me Hope, students have the opportunity to serve community meals, learn catering skills for small gatherings and large events, and spend hours in the kitchen every day practicing their new culinary skills.They are required to complete a resume and are introduced to local restaurant owners and chefs that give them interview tips. They form long-lasting relationships with each other, along with our staff and volunteers that support them as they move into employment and their own housing.
The following are the statistics up to this point:
56 Graduates (1 deceased)
61% Graduation Rate
85% Employment Rate Following Graduation
54% Long-term Employment Rate
Our students are employed at organizations like Cattle Co., Village Inn, Olive Garden, Wendy’s, Value Village, Cake Studio, Michaels, Menchies, Kriner's Diner and other local businesses throughout Anchorage. We fully expect the latest class to move into a variety of food jobs throughout the community.
On January 29, 2018 we will be starting our 6th cohort of students and starting March 19, 2018 we will be transitioning to a two-tiered program, with overlapping classes starting every seven weeks. The tier one students will be preparing the noon meal for over 500 people and the tier two students will be preparing the evening meal for the women’s shelter. This is a very exciting step, as we will at any given time have up to 40 students in the classes.
We have learned several lessons as each class has passed through Feed Me Hope. Some of the wisdom we have gained is:
1) Stable housing is the most important component for a student to remain in the program through graduation. Every student that stays in a shelter situation asides from our women’s shelter has dropped out so far. Those who stay at outside emergency cold weather shelters struggle to maintain their sobriety or stay clean, particularly on weekends. This is where Rescue Mission and Partners for Re-entry have been invaluable partners.
Partners for Re-entry has agreed to provide housing for any of our students that have any type of criminal record for the entire fourteen weeks. Since establishing this agreement, our graduation success rate has skyrocketed 30%.
2) Support, encouragement, and a controlled environment are essential to preventing our students with a history of drug abuse from relapsing. The students are all drug tested on the first day of class and randomly tested throughout the course; this serves as motivation for our students to stay clean throughout the course of FMH. Allowing the female students to stay 24/7 in our women's shelter provides them with a safe and controlled environment to aid them in their recovery. We have had a couple of the women move into an inpatient treatment program after graduation, or they have left the program to attend a treatment program.
3) Spiritual counseling, recovery classes, and prayer are essential to helping our students overcome hurdles - like trauma and substance abuse. Each week, a group of men and women come to offer prayer and counseling to the students. Most of the students choose to participate and they are able to overcome much of their self-defeating thought processes through the relationships they build with these faithful volunteers.
4) Never underestimate the power of a celebration! There is nothing we enjoy more than the students' excitement over their graduation. The students dress up, prepare speeches, and invite their families to partake in an elaborate meal prepared by our head chefs. We gift them with customized chef coats and present them with their FMH completion certificate to the cheers of their friends and family. It's always amazing to witness how far our students have come and hear their testimonies of restoration, transformation, and renewal.
5) The proverbial "don't judge a book by its cover": never judge the potential of a student on the first day of class. We have been surprised time and time again by the motivation and growth in those that seem least likely to succeed
The relevance to Anchorage's plan to end homelessness is many fold. By bringing these individuals from desperate situations - unemployment, homelessness, and former incarceration - into a community that is willing to invest in their lives, believe in them, and encourage them daily, we see their hope restored. Upon graduation from the program, they have developed strong relationships with their classmates, staff, volunteers and the clients they have prepared meals for day after day! They constantly hear praise, thankfulness, and kind, nurturing words. They realize the value of their efforts and see the accomplishments they make each day. This instills in them a desire to succeed and persevere even when it’s difficult. They learn that they don't need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and that there are people who truly care for them. Most importantly, they learn that they are inherently valuable and capable of success.
All these things are critical components to success in the workplace, in the home, and in their ability to operate as a happy, healthy contributors to our society.
The following page contains a letter from one of our DOC students. He has given me permission to share his story. For confidentiality purposes, his name has been omitted.
This student grew up in a village….had never been outside even to Anchorage. At the age of 15 he was sent to prison for nearly forty years. He was in several prisons around the US and all he knew was prison life.
He showed up at the Downtown Hope Center just 4 hours after he was released from Goose Creek, where he had been for years. They placed him in a halfway house and dropped him off at our front door. This student had never seen a cell phone, was not used to colors, had not been around women, and had no idea how to operate in his new environment.
At forty-nine years old, his first experience outside of a village and outside of prison, he found himself surrounded by twenty homeless classmates, all of them scared and unsure of what they were getting themselves into. That night he served dinner to fifty homeless women in our shelter…he cried for the first time realizing these women had no homes and no families to care for them.
During his time in Feed Me Hope he went through incredible emotional changes and growth, his last experience of freedom was at fifteen years old!
The following letter was written by this student on graduation day…….
I was released from prison on July 25th, 2017. At 8 am I was moved into Glenwood Center in downtown Anchorage. The supervisor for the furloughs in Alaska enrolled me in the culinary arts school at the Downtown Soup Kitchen. She came to the Glenwood Center and offered me to go to this school. I accepted the offer. My motive for accepting the offer was this; I felt that if I didn't accept I would be slapping away a hand that was offering me a hand up.
The decision was the best decision I'd made in my entire life besides accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior, so after an extremely long prison sentence, my first day, after being at the Glenwood Center, I was in the culinary arts school.
The first staff I met was TJ. His passion for what he does compelled me to listen and apply the life skills lessons he teaches. He taught me to move forward in life and hold my head up, shoulders back, that my past does not define me, and that any mistake I make in life is a good mistake, if I learn something from it. When confronted with stress, stop and breathe, separate fact from fiction. He's taught much, much more than what I've written. He's taught me and provided me enough information to leave prison behind and begin my journey back into society.
Chef David and Chef Tammy have a lot of knowledge that they've taught the culinary students. Chef David's teaching catches your attention. He's concise in explaining why we do what we do what we do and the chemical reactions of the food that made learning to cook interesting. His patience is second to none.
Chef Tammy is awesome. During the past 10 weeks we've become a team. She's my leader I respect both her and Chef David's character and integrity in the Kitchen.
Before becoming a student in the Downtown Soup Kitchen Culinary Arts School program I couldn't boil water without burning the pot. I've become educated in the proper use of a kitchen knifes, and all cooking utensils. Everything kitchen related, I've been taught. I'm equipped to be a good hand in the kitchen.
All of the Downtown Soup Kitchen staff are caring and loving people. All have helped me in my journey back into society. In my short time there they've become my family.
This is top notch and should be promoted, it equips people with coping skills and teaches a trade that will always need employees in the industry.