Four years ago, Jake Kurzawski couldn't even feed himself. Today, he will help serve Thanksgiving dinner to thousands of homeless and hungry people.
When he was adrift and penniless, Kurzawski received free meals at the Orange County Rescue Mission, where he now is the head chef, serving up both food and inspiration.
It has been a long journey for the 37-year-old man, who battled and beat a severe drug problem with help from the mission's Men's Recovery Program.
"I started doing drugs--pot, pills and heroin--just after the sixth grade," said Kurzawski, who grew up in San Diego. "I was just a mess from 12 years old. I did go to culinary arts school. But then I would get a job, do OK, save up some money, quit, do drugs and start over again. I would self-destruct over and over again."
As a traveling carnival worker five years ago in Heron, he got fed up with his lifestyle.
"I got tired of getting up in the morning doing drugs, doing drugs to get ready for work and doing drugs to go to sleep," he said. "It was a cycle that finally got real old, so I hitchhiked and ended up in Costa Mesa."
After spending all his money on motels and drugs, Kurzawski found himself hungry and without shelter during the summer of 1991. He was on the streets of Santa Ana when he was directed to the mission for a hot meal and a shower.
"I would come in for food and a shower for about a year until something kind of struck home," Kurzawski explained. "A chaplain told me, 'You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. Do something about it now.' "
In August 1992, Kurzawski entered the mission's rehabilitation program that he credits for turning his life around. "They helped me break the cycle of addiction I was on," he said.
Kurzawski graduated from the program a year later and today lives a drug-free life in Orange with his wife, Denny.
He accepted the top cook's job at the mission two years ago over higher-paying work.
"I'm so thankful for having my life back that I feel it's my responsibility to be here to help these people who are where I used to be, even if just with a smile and a hot meal," he said Wednesday, as he prepared to serve lunch to the recovery program's participants and the needy public. "This is where I'm supposed to be."
The mission today plans to serve 38,000 Thanksgiving dinners, cooked by Kurzawski and hundreds of volunteers, whom he coordinates. When the feast begins, Kurzawski will say a prayer as he does every time he serves a meal. He also visits with the guests, offering a word of encouragement or sharing his story.
For Kurzawski, who cooks 300 to 400 meals a day, his job "is an opportunity to try to feed all the parts of the body--physical and spiritual."
He said, "I like people and I get a chance to love them here."
Kurzawski has touched the lives of many program participants and transients, including Michael Icenhower, 28.
"He's one of my favorite people," Icenhower said. "He is a blessed man. He knows what you're going through and doesn't just say it for empathy's sake. He's been there."
Another program participant, Clarence Fields, 39, also praises Kurzawski. "He's got a big heart and he loves to cook for us," Fields said.
Jim Palmer, the mission's executive director, said the chef truly can relate to the people he feeds and offer inspiration.
"Most of the people walking in our door are coming in with no hope at all," he said. "Jake came off the street himself and can offer the first little spark of hope and make them realize that they can turn their lives around too."
That's what Thanksgiving Day is all about, he said. "We should celebrate what God has given each of us and then go out and share it."