In Columbus, Ga., a training program opens doors for those in need

The Open Door Institute offers a 16-week life skills training program to both the homeless and low-income residents who are seeking documented skills to improve their chances of landing a decent-paying job.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
A studio shot of ingredients used in Italian cooking and baking.

Leanna Moore has always loved to cook, having even done so for a soul food restaurant, preparing collard greens, fried chicken, potato salad, dressing, turkey and candied yams – the works, she calls it.

But after the eatery closed, the Columbus, Ga., resident and single mother found herself without a paycheck and decided she wanted something more. A chance posting on Facebook led to Moore, 46, enrolling in the Open Door Institute, which offers a 16-week life skills training program that includes four days of preparing food safely.

"It's just trying to get employed and continue on with the future. This will be my stepping stone," Moore, who is engaged to marry, said on a recent Monday after a two-hour culinary session at Feeding the Valley Food Bank in north Columbus, which allows the institute, operated by Open Door Community House, to use its kitchen for the training.

In the third session, it was all about cooking omelets and potatoes for breakfast, sampling them, then cleaning up afterward, with volunteer chef John Chapiewski overseeing the seven students as they mixed eggs with bell peppers, bacon, sausage and other veggies. Next week, the focus will be on preparing chicken and seafood, with some potential employers expected to be present.

"I'm trying to show them skills that they're actually going to use, things that they're going to need to know to work in the industry," including hotels and restaurants, said Chapiewski, who has worked in the food industry 25 years and has volunteered with the Open Door program for eight years.

"We're giving people a second chance at learning a trade, a skill, and hopefully empowering them to get their lives back on track and get a roof over their head and things like that," he said after the session.

Columbus resident Trina Harris, 40, said her personal passion is preparing delicious pastries, but that the overall culinary program and other skills she has learned have been invaluable.

"It helps you to be able to work as a team," she said. "It helps you to know the dos and the don'ts of the kitchen, where to find things and how to work at a fast pace. It's very beneficial to me knowing that it's going to help me and my kids and my family down the road."

Aside from the cooking skills learned by the students, the payoff at the end is a diploma-like piece of paper certifying they are "ServSafe" trained. It's a document that indicates those working in the food industry know things like preparing chicken and seafood at proper temperatures, storing edibles safely, washing hands, and cleaning up after a shift.

"It's just that golden star saying I know my stuff and I earned it," said Octavia Downing of the ServSafe certification.

Downing is coordinator of the Open Door Institute and the life skills program that is open to both the homeless and low-income residents who are seeking documented skills to improve their chances of landing a decent-paying job.

"With this group, we have four that have gained employment during the session, and from other groups we have about 10 to 12 that actually got employment and still have it going," she said of the students, some of which work for the Muscogee County School District, St. Luke United Methodist Church (which operates a private school), Rivermill Event Centre and a local Del Taco eatery.

Other skills taught to participants over the 16 weeks at the Open Door Institute include using a computer, budgeting, communicating properly with other people, particularly a manager, writing a resume and cover letters, and interviewing for a job.

"It's giving them those training skills and confidence, and being with them a step at a time to make sure that they get what they need and maintain it to be more successful in life," Downing said of the program, which costs $1,600 per person. The money comes from donations, grants and other sources of funding at Open Door Community House.

Frank Sheppard, president and chief executive officer of Feeding the Valley Food Bank, said he's proud to work with Open Door and allow the students to use his facility's kitchen, which is idle much of the afternoon each day after meals are prepared for area residents hungry and in need. That includes elderly people and children.

"It just turned out to be a win-win, really," Sheppard said of the collaboration with Open Door and the culinary training. "I think this program has an excellent success rate. We're told over 90 percent of the students that go through the program actually do obtain employment and can then further their careers and have a better opportunity to support their families."

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