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Recipe for success

Former rescue mission residents cook their way to careers

Recipe for success

VICTORY TRADE SCHOOL

It's lunchtime on a Thursday at the Cook's Kettle. The chef's special of the day is a hoagie stuffed with hot roast beef, bell peppers and fries on the side. The buffet special tomorrow will be Oriental catfish, a local favorite. What's not on the white board at the front of the restaurant is a notice of what's really special: the restaurant workers themselves. Half of them are former drug addicts or alcoholics. A few are ex-convicts. Some have had serious physical or mental health problems.

Cook's Kettle is the student-operated restaurant of Victory Trade School, a project of Springfield Victory Mission-and catfish isn't the only thing that VTS is known for. Rescue missions from across the country (17 states so far) send men to VTS, where they do not simply work for room and board: They practice running a restaurant and hotel business. As VTS director Victoria Queen said, "They learn to think like the owner of the place."

The birth of VTS was similar to the dilemma at the Cana water-into-wine wedding feast. A hospitality disaster became a chance for God to intercede and make things better. Springfield Victory Mission, after serving the poor for 21 years, ran out of room and made plans to build elsewhere, but protests from prospective neighbors, along with new zoning ordinances, stopped them. After the city council voted down the building request, the mission directors began thinking about teaching life skills in a trade school setting. They didn't have to look far: A building boarded-up for 17 years was across the street. After fundraising and renovation, VTS opened in fall 2003.

Since then, 30 students have graduated. VTS follows up with the students until 120 days after graduation: 100 percent of the graduates have been fully employed by that time. Queen said people are waiting in line to hire the graduates. The majority of graduates become employed in the Springfield area at upscale restaurants and country clubs.

Along with a virtually guaranteed job start, VTS offers other incentives for students to graduate. Each graduate receives his share of restaurant tips at the end of the program-but he can't just blow the money. Students must fill out a requisition form to release these earnings (an average of $3,000 each) and a staff member needs to approve the request. The mission's thrift store also gives graduates vouchers for basic appliances, furniture, and electronics.

Steven Roberts, a 2006 graduate, began experimenting at age 15 with every type of drug he could find. After two stints in the juvenile court system in California, a judge ordered him to a Teen Challenge program, where Roberts stayed clean and fell in love with cooking. When Roberts' director showed him a VTS newsletter, Roberts thought the program's Christ-centered foundation would give him the security he needed to keep out of old habits, while training him to be better at the job he loved.

At VTS, Roberts gained the experience and certification he needed-and four days after graduation he began working as a line cook at a country club in Springfield. Just last month, Roberts traveled to Orlando to cook alongside Master Chefs. Now 26, Roberts credits God for his success: "I truly believe that if it wasn't for God, I would be dead, or in jail for the rest of my life." Roberts plans to stay in Springfield, learning from the country club's executive chef and living in his first apartment.

The school's 64 percent graduation rate testifies to the success of Christian programs. The graduation rate was only 17 percent during the first year of the school, when students entered VTS after completing a state drug treatment program. After that, Queen decided to focus her recruiting efforts on Christian recovery programs, and she required students to first earn a GED. For men without one, the mission designed a year-long feeder school called PREP (Prayer, Reading scripture, Education and Praise) designed to help students pass their GEDs and gain a solid biblical base. "If they have that biblical foundation, they can handle the stress and conflict so much better," Queen said. "They know where they can go to get their strength."

VTS students need strong motivation to get through their busy schedule. Their weekdays begin at 4 a.m.; they open the restaurant at 6. They serve breakfast until 10:30 a.m., then prepare for lunch. The restaurant closes to the public after lunch, giving time for a crew meeting where the men talk out problems and read customer comment cards. Later in the afternoon, they take classes and spend evenings studying and doing homework. On Sunday mornings, church attendance is required.

VTS and PREP students work together to serve 1,500 to 2,000 meals a week. Fewer than 40 men serve and prepare breakfast and lunch for the public, take care of dinner for the men in transitional living, and cater on the side. Their catering service is in such high demand that the executive chef had to limit the off-campus banquets to four per week. In the course of the program, men spend at least 1,500 hours practicing for hotel and restaurant careers.

Students also take a wide variety of college-level classes accredited by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. They learn everything from sanitation to controlling foodservice costs, and must maintain a C average. The biggest difference between Victory Trade School and other intensive educational schools is the cost: Students pay nothing.

VTS survives economically through the sweat equity of the enrolled men. The school costs an average of $17,000 per student per year. Students work an average of 40 hours each week to offset half of that cost, and the remaining expense is covered by donors. Queen expects that within a year VTS will receive post-secondary school accreditation, which will enable students to receive government Pell grants based on financial need. Pell grants will make VTS less dependent on donations and will help expand the school's class offerings. Accreditation will also raise the stature of the trade school, allowing students to transfer credits to other accredited colleges.

Classroom learning applies to students' daily work. In their restaurant marketing class, students didn't just study a book, they implemented a marketing plan for the Cook's Kettle by designing advertising for city buses and movie screens. The year of courses also includes 175 hours of biblical education and life skills classes such as conflict resolution, personal economics, anger management, and communication and study skills.

Hands-on hotel training takes place half a mile down the block at Victory Square, the mission's men's facility. The Lodge section of Victory Square functions like a European-style hostel, where men pay $8 to $12 for a bed and a continental breakfast. Despite a broken air conditioner, all 50 beds at the Lodge were full. VTS students live four to a room in a different section of the building and are on a steady rotation to do every job a hotel requires, from housekeeping to management.

On the wall of the VTS residence hall, a poster decorated with graduation photos reads, "This is our school." That's not just a slogan: Students not only operate the restaurant but elect their own governance body that is responsible for rotating daily chores, interviewing program applicants, and occasionally bringing concerns about individual men to the staff.

This high level of responsibility makes Victory Trade School stand out from other mission programs. Mission workers are often worried about residents doing something wrong, said Jim Harriger, executive director of Springfield Victory Mission. But VTS leaders flipped that concept: Instead of expecting the worst, they prayed for the best and trained students for it.

Megan Rieger

Megan Rieger