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Especially in this day and age, one reads about those who moved to Florida from another part of the world to live the “American Dream,” believing life here is better than anywhere else on the planet. Once planted here, many realize issues such as language barriers, lack of education, the cost of living, and a low-wage job market can be major stumbling blocks to success. That’s definitely where determination, education and often a stroke of luck come into play!

Luiz’s mom wanted to give him the opportunity to live in this country, as her brother had been an exchange student and she had family here. When they arrived from Brazil, Luiz was a high school student and “lucky enough to know more English than anyone else.” Nonetheless, he was required to repeat his junior year due to two very different school year calendars and systems.

Though he learned English well and graduated, and his mom worked hard to support them, college was out of the picture. Luiz instead began to work in a host of low-wage jobs in the in the hotel industry over the years which, he now realizes, helped him develop customer service skills and improve his language abilities. Moving on to a job at a go-kart track and unsettled career-wise, he was very determined to “give service” and to volunteer his time. “I learned the language. I do my part for the community,” he says. (Ironically, Luiz volunteered last year with The HIVE, helping to assemble pallets and plant our Restore vegetable garden.)

Volunteering his time, in fact, is what brought Luiz to Pathlight Kitchen and the Culinary Training Program. While helping one of the chefs (who was also his mother’s friend) to arrange and clean equipment, the tables were turned and he decided he “wanted to learn from her” and take the free cooking class. “It was an opportunity that just came up,” says Luiz. Starting with Dining Room and Table Service Skills sessions, he became excited and realized, “This was a way for me to put on paper all the experience I have (in hotel banquet rooms). It gives me a certificate and more of a foundation.”

When the 12-week culinary classes began in July 2018, Luiz was fearful of failure, but dove in anyway. “The kitchen for me?” he thought. In fact, he had no expectations; he only wanted to finish the class. Those thoughts seemed to change pretty quickly, however. “Once you figure it out…it was just going to be a win-win…I never thought of myself as a chef. But I’m thinking about my future…a wife and kids, my mom.”

“He’s always willing to help out….a team player,” says Chef Esteban Torres about Luiz, of whom he is very proud. “He was so grateful for the class that Luiz and Esteban edited2 he stayed to mop and take out the trash. He never says ‘no.’ It (the kitchen) wasn’t his interest in the beginning. Little by little, he started feeling more confident, involved and interested. I enjoyed seeing him get a job.”

As a stroke of luck would have it, Luiz’s culinary program graduation, his loss of the go-kart job and an opening for a prep cook in a good restaurant collided within two weeks of each other (and his birthday). “I was freaking out! Everything just fell from the sky. The timing was perfect.” He’s been working at the restaurant ever since and is in high demand for extra hours because of his knowledge and work ethic. “It’s great to be in the kitchen; that’s where you start; that’s how you progress; and I’m learning.”

Now that he’s on a career path, Luiz has encouragement for others. “I wish more people would find the opportunity. First of all, it’s free. What a great opportunity here; there’s great structure…there’s so much here. In Brazil, this would be an expensive school. Learning to cook only improves your life…makes you more independent. It’s a solid career…an industry that’s been going forever. We’re here to learn what’s right, so you can do it and tell others how to do it.”

“The fact that I was able to get a (good) job and am finally able to pay for things…it’s a career!” That realization seems to have provided some breathing space for other creative pursuits, such as creating unique furniture and art display structures from pallets, computer programming, and singing in the Bach Choir.

We know this young man is on the right path to a bright future and we’re happy to have shed a light!

Stephen Neice

Stephen learned at a young age the feelings of hurt, distrust and anger, all of which shaped his turbulent life. These emotions still forefront in his psyche as he wonders how and why he’s lasted almost six decades, one also sees a sense of pride, determination, and caring peek through. “I’ve been a survivor all my life,” he says. “If you don’t have survival skills, you’re not going to make it!”

Growing up in Indiana, Stephen remembers that it was “always me and my mom.” That was until she met a man and turned her time and attention to him and his children, leaving her own son to fend for himself, in a house with no food, at the tender age of 12. Competing fruitlessly for his mother’s attention, Stephen started “doing the wrong things and hanging around with the wrong people.” He and his fast-developing temper only succeeded in getting himself into trouble with the law. 

“My childhood was basically spent behind bars,” he recalls. “…Jail, boys’ school, group homes.” His mother’s response to his behavior was to say “goodbye” and make him a ward of the court. He lived in an institutional environment until he was 18 and his “time was up.” Interestingly, the boys looked up to him and the school offered him a job. His reaction was to discourage their admiration, refuse the job offer and become rebellious once again.

Twenty years old and determined to get his life together, he found his calling…the carnival. He started working and traveling all over the nation and the world with a carnival, an occupation he’s had on and off for 38 years. He has also built office furniture, maintained lawns and worked in construction, yet always went back to the itinerant life. And though the job gave him the alone time this self-described “loner” liked, it incongruously paved the way for his addiction to drugs in order “to fit in.” Drugs, in turn, were responsible for more problems with the law, prison time, and “a lot of things I don’t remember” throughout his adult life.

When he quit the carnival due to physical pain, drugs also led him to live on the streets, go to shelters only when he wanted to “get cleaned up,” and finally “start to get myself together” at Coalition for the Homeless, where he began attending to his medical issues. In February 2018, the Coalition referred him to Pathlight HOME’s Restore Permanent Supportive Housing Program at Maxwell Terrace Apartments. At long last, Stephen found himself in his own efficiency and able to trust someone enough to focus on the medical treatment and support services he needed to live a different kind of life.

“I’m tired of doing without,” he says. “It’s time for me to change myself. I’ve had a very rough life. I’m kind of tired of it. I’m getting medical treatment…it’s given me a sense of accomplishment. Things are starting to look up…to move forward.”

Stephen is grateful to his Case Manager, Lourdes, especially for her help in applying for disability benefits. As one who has predominantly paid his own way in life, he can’t wait to do so again. “It would make me feel better because…I’m accomplishing something for myself. When you’re used to doing things on your own, it makes me feel like I’m taking advantage. It bothers me when I have to ask.”

Even though his temper still gets the best of him at times, Stephen is working hard to come out on top. “If it wasn’t for being here, I probably would have stopped going to the doctor,” he shares. “I have a sense of security. I don’t have to look over my shoulder; I’m more relaxed and don’t have to be on my guard. I’m thankful that I’m taking advantage.”

Last but not least is an unfamiliar sense of caring that’s crept into his heart. One might say the tiny black and white kitty clinging to Stephen’s chest and aptly named “Little Bit” has made the biggest difference of all. “He’s like a kid to me. He’s my buddy and I’m his.” That sentiment plus the other positives in his life today, we foresee “More than a Little Bit of Hope” for Stephen’s future!

Craig D. Maxwell Garden

Craig is a gentle and fastidious man whose challenging life history one could not possibly envision when sitting down to talk with him. His reality is one of acting out against his parents' discipline until the age of 18. Not able to keep a job for very long and struggling with life throughout the ensuing years, he was ultimately diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bi-polar disorder. When he was approved for disability benefits at just 40 years old, “I admitted it then,” he recalls.

He and his girlfriend were living with family in a large Orlando home, sharing the rent and responsibilities. The arrangement began to sour as he felt increasingly disrespected by the others. His response was to pack, put most of his belongings in storage and move into the Salvation Army, where he stayed for two years. Relocating to the woods, he partied and drank until he developed chronic pancreatitis, resulting in recurring hospital visits. Deciding he had to get out of the woods for his health, he returned to the Salvation Army and saved money for an apartment, but went back to the woods when a rental agreement fell through. The one good happening was that “I just stopped [drinking] cold turkey.”

His next stop was Coalition for the Homeless, where his merry-go-round of places began to slow down. “I used that time to recoup. I started healing,” he said of his nine months there. His case manager “got me involved in saving some money. It gave me stability.”

Craig’s Coalition case manager, Malik, also told him about Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Garden Apartments and our Permanent Supportive Housing Programs.

“He started telling me about this place…what they do [for chronically homeless residents]. I wasn’t sure. I was scared….yet I couldn’t see another choice.” Craig decided to visit Maxwell Garden and meet with our Occupancy Specialist. When he “looked around” the facility and grounds he realized, “It looked okay; I felt safe!” And the rest is history, as they say. Craig became a resident of our Homes for New Beginnings (HNB) Program on May 16, 2017.

“I’m really so grateful for this apartment. It’s SO much more than I could ever hope for,” he says. “It’s given me a base where I feel comfortable…and have a safe home to come home to!” His pride and longtime desire to have “nice things” is evident as he adds, “I love cleaning my home.”

Craig also expresses his gratitude for those involved in his transformation, such as Mr. Malik and his HNB case manager, Ms. Gail Smith, for her caring, help and encouragement. “I guess you can have a really nice life if you trust in things and people who are trying to help you.”  

Now “having a home base” in his Maxwell Garden efficiency, Craig’s existence is very different than in years past. He’s become a self-described “news junkie” who keeps to himself, enjoys researching topics on his laptop, wakes up early to coffee, relishes dusting and mopping his place, and is able to keep his medical appointments.

Musing about his life, Craig recognizes that, “If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be homeless in the woods.” Given an obvious pride at his changed life, we have no doubt about his choice for the future. One might say he’s off the merry-go-round!

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4049 S. Orange Blossom Trail, in front of Maxwell Garden Apartments, is home to one of Pathlight HOME’s wonderful Social Enterprise Programs, Sobik’s Subs Café. As a social enterprise, our unique café provides training and employment opportunities to formerly homeless and low-income students in the Pathlight Kitchen Culinary Training Program, right along with its yummy breakfast and lunch items, catering, event room, and free Wi-Fi. Thanks to an added partnership with Starbucks “We Proudly Serve,” you can also enjoy Starbuck’s delicious coffees and teas. How exactly, does Sobik’s Subs Café operate so efficiently? We owe it to the hard work of our quite competent manager, Barbara!

Born and raised in Georgia, Barbara moved to Orlando in middle school and has been residing here since. She reflects fondly on her childhood, accrediting her cooking abilities to her mother. “I learned to cook at a young age. My mom taught me how to make biscuits. They were hard as a rock! But [with practice over time] I got the hang of it.”

Cooking was always in the forefront of her mind when considering what career path she would pursue as she grew older. “I knew how to cook well, but I wanted professional training.” She decided to pursue culinary training, where she “learned the ins and outs of working as a chef.” After training and landing an internship, she was able to begin her career, which ultimately led her into the position she has now, as Manager of Sobik’s Subs Café for the past two years.

As manager, Barbara has incorporated popular additions to the Sobik’s Subs menu such as muffins, cereal, and other options for “on the go” customers that need a quick breakfast before work. She has big plans for the future, and hopes expand the menu even further, possibly adding pizza and wings - delicious complements to our signature subs! When she isn’t busy managing the business, she also plans to start taking baking classes, so she can implement a dessert and pastry menu in the future. With the support of her two new part-time employees, Kris and Christopher, working in the front and back of the kitchen, Barbara is confident her goals for our Sobik’s Subs location are possible.    

Barbara’s career is proof that hard work and utilizing community resources can lead to success. When asked what she recommends to someone considering taking Pathlight Kitchen’s 12-week Culinary Training Program, she says to go for it! “It’s great because it’s fast paced, but it’s worth it. The amount you learn happens quickly. If you are interested in a culinary career, it’s a great foundation. It opens many doors.”

Barbara reflects on the “doors” that were opened in her life after becoming the manager at Sobik’s Subs Café. “I am learning how to manage a business. In the future, if I want to open my own business, I will have the foundation to do so. This has been a great opportunity.”

We are so thankful in return to have Barbara as part of the Pathlight HOME team. For more information about our two social enterprise programs, Sobik’s Subs Café, and Pathlight Kitchen, please visit http://pathlighthome.org/social-enterprise/sobik-s-cafe  

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September 20, 2018 was an exciting day at Pathlight Kitchen, one dedicated to celebrating the graduation of our wonderful Culinary Training Program students! Over the past 12 weeks, these students have worked hard in the classroom and our commercial kitchen to complete a comprehensive culinary skills course. Their studies, supported by the online information and videos of “Rouxbe,” a world leading online culinary program, and the intense hands-on training by our Pathlight Kitchen Chefs, culminated in the day’s graduation ceremony.

Executive Chef Esteban and Chef Instructor Holly proudly awarded the students diplomas, chef coats, and their hard earned ServSafe Manager Certifications for completing the course. The students, along with their families and friends, took pictures and shared fond memories of the past 12 weeks. A delicious lunch followed, and everyone left with a sense of optimism and accomplishment heading into the future.

As Chef Esteban and Holly prepared for the next cycle of Culinary Training classes, which started October 1, we asked them to reflect on the past graduating classes and their experience as the instructors. A typical day in the Culinary Training Program begins with welcoming the students and reviewing the lesson plan for the day. The students then complete a lesson(s) on Rouxbe, which teaches them about food preparation, safety, kitchen procedures, and much more. (It’s also a wonderful resource as students can access the program online and learn outside of the classroom.) They proceed to the commercial kitchen to practice firsthand what they have just seen online, under the watchful and experienced eyes and hands of their instructors. The students work with one another and the instructors, following directions to create a delicious dish. Once it is complete, they clean up and then taste their creation, while discussing what went well and what areas they can improve upon for the next class.   20180905 111945

When asked to describe the purpose of the program, Chef Holly replied, “We have a great facility here [at Pathlight Kitchen]. We are training and giving [low-income] students the skills they need to get and keep a job in the culinary field. [They] are on the road to be self-sufficient for themselves and their families.” To this point, there have already been many successes in this class. Multiple students have secured culinary jobs, one student is working toward starting a catering business, and other recent graduates are eagerly taking their marketable skills and applying for jobs.

Chefs Esteban and Holly have big plans they hope to implement for future classes. “We are excited to have Starbucks come in October to teach a class on drink preparation,” Esteban exclaimed. “We hope to expand Pathlight Kitchen into a catering service as well in the months to come.”

It is definitely an understatement that Chef Esteban and Holly make a great team. Holly boasts about her Culinary Institute of America educated colleague. When asked what advice they have for the recent graduates and for people considering enrolling in the Culinary Training Program, Chef Esteban said simply, “commitment and discipline is key in all aspects of life.” Without a doubt, with Chefs as dedicated to empowering others as Esteban and Holly, we are confident our future students will continue to excel and work toward successful careers!

To learn more about Pathlight Kitchen and our Culinary Training Programs, please visit http://pathlighthome.org/social-enterprise/pathlight-kitchen