Marvin always had a fascination with food. He even dreamed of one day owning a Cajun restaurant specializing in the spicy delicacies he savored as a child. But life on the streets forced many of his dreams to take a back seat to other demons haunting his life.
For more months than he wants to remember, the 36-year-old Los Angeles native, who asked that his last name not be used, wandered the streets between homeless shelters--not caring about his future, not certain of his next meal.
That all began to change when he stepped into the New Image Emergency Shelter at Grand Avenue and 18th Street in Downtown Los Angeles and enrolled in a program teaching residents the culinary arts. Twenty-two students signed up, but only six completed the course.
The first graduating class received their diplomas in a special ceremony during which guests were entertained with live jazz and given the opportunity to sample a sumptuous meal of prime rib, chicken breasts, baked potatoes and vegetables, topped off with peach cobbler for dessert.
"Now I feel I'm about to get myself focused," said Marvin proudly, certificate in hand. "I'm ready to make a new start."
Marvin's new start will come in the form of a job. For completing the program, all of the graduates are assured work in a restaurant in Los Angeles or Long Beach.
The program is the creation of William Berkley, an experienced chef who has worked in restaurants across the country from Denny's to Hilton hotels. Berkley runs the shelter kitchen that feeds about 300 homeless people a day with the help of volunteers.
Berkley noticed that many of his kitchen helpers volunteered in exchange for extra food, but others seemed fascinated with the cooking arts. "They wanted to learn what happens, they were interested and that's all it took," he said.
With the help of shelter administrators, he put together a program of classes for students who prepare meals for shelter residents. The program was backed with instructional material and other assistance from Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Crown Plaza Hotel and the Queens Restaurant of Long Beach.
The participants worked from sunrise to sunset learning about setting tables, sanitation, food preparation, portion sizes and the dangers of bacteria.
"Everyone can run a kitchen," said Brenda Wilson, New Image's executive director. "The primary focus is to help them get back into the mainstream, back to independent living."
For Johnnie Turman, 50, who made his way to Los Angeles on a freight train, it was more than a chance at a new start. "A lot of times when you are homeless, you don't know where your next meal is coming from," he said. "Now I do."
At the graduation ceremony, a band played, and politicians and their representatives handed out awards. Guest speaker Marla Gibbs, entertainer and community activist, delivered an inspirational message.
Gibbs told the graduates that the road to success often begins at the bottom.
"Don't look down on service jobs," she said. "It's part of a team effort. . . . I expect to see you guys in the best places. I expect to be eating in your restaurants one day."
For Linda Williams, the top graduate of the class, the message had special meaning.
She has been living in shelters since arriving in Los Angeles last year from Texas. She and her husband now have jobs preparing meals for residents at another homeless shelter.
"Now, I'm a whole person," she said. "Maybe my husband and I will have a house someday. God has been good. I could still be on the streets. I'm truly grateful."
After the graduation, the students traded in their caps for culinary uniforms and marched into the kitchen to finish preparing the meal.
In closing, Berkley reminded the students of an old saying: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime."
Then Berkley made the saying a little more personal.
"Not only do you know how to fish, but you can also prepare it too."