Julianna Setters, her face and apron dusted with flour, patted a disc of dough on Wednesday morning with the gentleness of a mother tending her baby.
Behind her, Brian Lindsay sweated over a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, spiking it with ginger, garlic and jalapeño peppers.
Kimberly Williams was at a back counter, transforming 50 pounds of carrots into delicate julienne sticks.
During the past 16 weeks, in a classroom and a kitchen at The Salvation Army’s emergency shelter on North B Street, they and four others have been enrolled in the local agency’s first culinary arts program, learning food fundamentals, cooking techniques and kitchen management. On Thursday, they will become the first graduates of the program and will be on a path toward jobs and stable housing.
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The road to success has been bumpy at best. Each of the graduates tells a harrowing story of homelessness, violence, or drug and alcohol addiction. Each wound up seeking help through The Salvation Army, which is perhaps best known for its holiday “bell ringers” and shelters. They received transitional housing from the agency, and help beating their addictions. Then came an offer to join the Del Oro division’s first culinary arts apprenticeship.
“I’ve always loved cooking, so it seemed like a logical choice for me,” said Williams, 39, who was pregnant and had two other children when “due to unforeseen hardship” she found herself on the streets more than a year ago.
“I was a little down for a minute,” she said, “but I tried to focus on the positive things, and this definitely was one of them.”
Williams is waiting to hear back from a couple of potential employers, she said. Her dream is to be a cook for children or elderly people and, eventually, open her own restaurant.
The culinary course is part of a larger effort by The Salvation Army in Northern California to do more than offer “handouts,” said Capt. Martin Ross, who leads The Salvation Army’s Sacramento division and was instrumental in launching the Sacramento apprenticeship.
“We’re trying to teach self-sufficiency. We serve a lot of people in our food line,” he said. “But we also want to help people get out of that line.”
The culinary program has spurred inquiries by other nonprofit groups across the state and beyond, he said. In July, Salvation Army Del Oro plans to launch a construction apprenticeship.
Each of the students are clients of one of Salvation Army’s programs in the Sacramento area, such as its Adult Rehabilitation Center or its Transitional Living Center. Culinary students learned their skills from instructors from The Art Institutes. The Salvation Army plans to work with the Associated Builders and Contractors for training in the construction field.
The agency’s Lodi chapter began a culinary program nine years ago, said Ross, and 94 percent of its 150 graduates have jobs and are free of drug and alcohol addiction a year after graduation.
“People can do all of the right things while they are with us,” Ross said. “But if they don’t have a job, they can easily go back to their old lifestyle.”
Setters, 28, never wants to go back.
As she prepared a batch of focaccia bread, she spoke about the drug addiction that led her to the streets. She became pregnant, and county authorities took her son away. “I told myself I had to get my life together,” she said.
With help from The Salvation Army, she got clean and obtained housing. She has her son back. And just recently, she landed a job at a local restaurant. “I’m starting off as a dishwasher,” she said. “I want to move up. But you have to start somewhere.”
Lindsay, 50, has a similar story.
“This has been a blessing,” he said. “My wife and I have our daughter back, and I’m already gainfully employed” at a local coffee house and bake shop.
As he stirred his sauce, he talked about the sense of calmness that comes over him when he cooks. “Even though the kitchen can be organized chaos, it’s very relaxing for me,” he said.
Williams said she is cooking healthy meals for her family, which has helped her manage her Crohn’s disease.
“I can even cook fancy schmancy things,” she said, including a baked chicken in an herb and lemon marinade. “My kids love my cooking now!”