Monday, May 09, 2005

Mission: transition: The Ottawa Mission is more than a soup kitchen

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.05.09
BYLINE: Michele Oberoi
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Colour Photo: Jean Levac, The Ottawa Citizen / RicWatson,far left, a 25-year food-services industry veteran, readies his class, left to right, Shezida Deen, Douglas MacDonald, J.M. Tauvette, James R., and Andre B. at the Mission. But Mr. Watson's program isn't simply about cooking. It includes life and job skills and access to other services.


Mission: transition: The Ottawa Mission is more than a soup kitchen -- one look at a typical day's menu puts that notion to rest. And it's more than a homeless shelter, too, Michele Oberoi writes.


It's noon on a Friday at the Ottawa Mission, the dining room is full, and a line of hungry men and women stretches almost to the front door. There's not much talking and little eye contact in the orderly procession of worn and tired people collecting their trays and cutlery, waiting for their turn at the counter.

It smells good in the kitchen. Today's menu is vegetable soup, pork chops and gravy, roasted potatoes, green beans almandine and salad, with chocolate pudding for dessert. Behind the gleaming stainless steel serving counter, at the end of the line of cooks in spotless white smocks and caps, stands cook-in-training Shezida Deen. Salad tongs in hand, she is ready to serve some of the 900 to 1,000 men, women and children who eat at the Mission each day.

Ms. Deen, 30, is one of five students enrolled in the Mission's food-services training program, designed to give those on social assistance the skills they need to find employment in the hospitality industry.

"The idea of (the Mission) just being a homeless shelter was not good enough," says Ric Watson, 42, manager of food services. "We want to make it into a transition centre."

To that end, Mr. Watson, who has 25 years' experience in the food industry, developed a six-month course to provide not only hands-on kitchen experience, but also health and safety training, classes in resume writing and interview skills, lessons in communications and basic computer skills, and job search help. Students also have access to other services such as housing search support, bus passes, and groceries.

"Our program isn't designed just to teach people how to cook," Mr. Watson says. "It's an A-to-Z program."

This is the second time the Mission has offered the food services training program; the first class of five graduated in February. Four of the graduates have found full-time work in the hospitality industry, and the fifth plans to attend college and continue his education.

"Our success rate is phenomenal so far," Mr. Watson says. The course now has a waiting list of 30 people.

"This is the best place to learn any of the culinary arts," says graduate Terrie Duquette, 31, who now volunteers in the Mission kitchen on her spare time.

Ms. Duquette, who plans to open her own restaurant, says regaining her self-esteem was the most important part of the training.

Fellow graduate Derrick Shears, 54, feels the same way. A former client of the Mission's drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, he credits the organization with saving his life. He now volunteers in the Mission's kitchen, and plans to continue his education and eventually open a business.

"My confidence is back up there again. I can plan for my future and my future means a lot to me now."

"Most of these guys have been told, 'You're no good,' " says Mr. Watson, who understands how his students feel. I was on the streets when I was 14."

But the food company he worked for as a teenager saw his potential and paid for his education. Mr. Watson was 17 when he got his cook's papers, and from there he went on to earn a hotel and restaurant management diploma.

"I am them," Mr. Watson says of his students. "They can go wherever they want."

Student James R., 42, has modest goals. He wants to learn as much as he can, so he can be employed at the end of the course. A recent client of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, he looks forward to the day money won't be so tight -- he lives on about $120 a month after paying rent.

"I really don't want to look too far down the road," James says, adding that the timing of the course could not have been better. "This has definitely increased my confidence level and my self-esteem. I'm slowly getting motivated again."

Training students while managing a kitchen of 10 paid staff and 300 volunteers is tough, particularly when many of the students are working to overcome issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, low self-esteem and depression.

"It can be challenging and it can be tiring, but I find it rewarding," says Mr. Watson. "These guys -- they want this program so bad. They want off this social assistance because it sucks."

They also want the opportunity to give back to the Mission.

Andre B., 34, who was briefly homeless last summer, remembers what it was like getting food at the Mission.

"When I was hungry, these people put affection into" the food), he says, adding that now he has the opportunity to put love into the food he prepares for the people in the food line.

Ms. Duquette agrees.

"It was great coming here every day and knowing I was making a difference in even one person's life," she says. "The Mission is more than just a soup kitchen."


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