Anthony Williams, 36, has always wanted to be a cook.
Growing up in Kalamazoo one of 10 children, he was often responsible for preparing meals for his siblings – giving him plenty of time to practice and master different recipes.
His dreams of pursuing a culinary career were halted, however, after a series of poor decisions landed him in prison. While incarcerated, he kept his dream alive by working in the food service department, preparing daily meals for nearly 2,000 fellow inmates.
“I made everything from grilled cheese to baked fish to bean salad,” Williams said. Now out of prison and the father of a four-year-old girl, Williams has the opportunity to finally have a career in the kitchen.
Last month, he, along with eight other students, all of whom have faced significant barriers to finding employment, walked the stage at Mary Jane Stryker Theater at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, as graduates of the Momentum/Culinary & Sustainable Food Systems Career Training Academy.
Momentum Urban Employment Initiative, a division of Urban Alliance, is a six-week intensive program designed to help unemployed and underemployed individuals in our community secure and maintain employment. This is accomplished through a unique mix of essential, employability and life skills trainings, along with job placement assistance.
Momentum focuses on assisting those facing significant barriers to employment in overcoming those barriers and building self-sufficiency. Forty percent of those who enrolled in Momentum in the past year were homeless. Eighty-eight percent were ex-offenders and 79% came from generational poverty.
Kalamazoo Valley Community College partnered with Momentum to offer the Culinary/Sustainable Food Systems Career Training Academy - a short-term career training program that teaches the technical skills required for successful work in the food industry as a culinary professional and/or employment in produce management.
The five-day-a-week, three-week program was taught by a team that included local chefs, farmers and nutritionists at Kalamazoo Valley’s Culinary and Allied Health Building but also included tours of area farms and restaurants.
Gorilla Gourmet, Bronson Healthcare Group, Greenleaf Hospitality, Millennium Restaurant Group, and Town & Country Market are among the partners that provided support to the program.Elizabeth Lyons, director of Career and Continuing Education at Kalamazoo Valley, called the effort “an extraordinary collaboration.”
She said it was amazing to witness the academy students working together as a team, maturing and blossoming.
“This has taught us that it takes collaboration to transform a community,” she said. “We’ve come together to transform lives.”
Williams is hopeful that his life will be transformed. “I want to have a career and this program will hopefully help me get that career. I don’t want to fail. I want to be a success,” Williams said. “My daughter is my motivation. If I can’t build myself up, how can I build her up? I want her to be proud of her dad.”
During the academy, students learned about food production, food processing, cooking methods, sanitation practices and equipment usage and tested for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ServSafe Food Handler and Allergen certification exams.
“I thought I knew how to cook,” Williams said. “But I didn’t know the ins and outs of it all and how it went from farm to table. I learned so much.”
A job fair was held at the end of the program, giving the students an opportunity to talk with potential employers. Among the participants were Bronson Healthcare Group, Greenleaf Hospitality, Millennium Restaurant Group and Brite Eyes Brewing.
Another Momentum/Kalamazoo Valley partnership begins May 15 with a CNC Career Academy. This will be the second time the CNC Career Academy has been offered through Momentum.
In the last year, 81% of the students enrolled in the Momentum program successfully graduated; 91% were successfully placed into employment with an average starting wage of $11.96 per hour. Graduates also maintained a 90% success rate for employment retention beyond 90 days.
For more information about the collaboration, contact Lyons at 269.353.1289 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Brian Parsons at 269.873.2804 or email@example.com