For two decades, drug addiction has plagued John Michael Johnson’s life. “I was not a real member of society at all,” he said.
Before Mr Johnson began rehab he said: “I was killing myself slowly.”
In 2019, he got sober, got a driver’s license, and moved into a new apartment in San Antonio with his girlfriend. They were planning for the future when Covid struck, and in April 2020 the two were put on leave.
As the pandemic has exacerbated drug use for many in the United States, especially when the most stringent lockdowns were in place, Mr Johnson saw an opportunity to further improve and distance himself from his past.
“I was already thinking about leaving the accident repair industry,” Johnson said. “Then when we were put on leave during Covid, we started participating in San Antonio Food Bank food drives. “
It was while researching the food bank’s website for food distribution dates this fall that Mr Johnson stumbled upon his culinary training program.
Part of the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund’s Feeding America network, the San Antonio Food Bank runs a 10-week, state-accredited cooking program to fight hunger by training the unemployed and underemployed to feed others.
“Our food bank is engaged in culinary education because we see that our kitchen can produce nourishing meals that impact people’s lives,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the food bank. “At the end of the day, food is medicine. This is what our body needs.
The aim of the program is to “put someone in the middle of the kitchen,” said Mr. Cooper, which means preparing interns for higher paying jobs in the industry, so that they can continue to learn and to progress.
Mr Johnson, 45, was eager to start fresh after 20 years working in body repair, during which he began his apprenticeship a year after graduating from high school.
“It was just a very stressful and toxic job,” said Mr Johnson, who had come to see the long hours and tight deadlines as breeding ground for drug use that contributed to his cycle of addiction.
In April, Mr Johnson began the culinary training program at the food bank, which distributes thousands of meals a week to vulnerable populations.
“It made me appreciate what the San Antonio Food Bank does even more because I got to see what they do firsthand,” he said.
Mr Johnson was spotted by a country club even before he graduated. After working there for a while, he moved to his current job as a line cook in a mall restaurant. While he’s not sure if he will stay in the food industry for the long haul, he came away with some valuable lessons.
“The food bank gave me more confidence,” he says. “It made my life better. It made me stronger.
Brooklyn’s Theodore Christopoulos also turned to a new career and gained self-confidence through the help of nonprofit groups.
Born and raised in Bay Ridge, Mr. Christopoulos has always admired his father and grandfather, who served in the military. Their work ethic during their subsequent career in construction and law enforcement also instilled a ‘never give up’ mentality in Mr. Christopoulos.
Under the direction of his father, Mr. Christopoulos, 34, began construction work after graduating from high school. He worked with different companies as a carpenter and took courses at the Institute of Design and Construction, which no longer exists, and at the New York City College of Technology.
By the time the pandemic hit New York City last year, Mr Christopoulos envisioned a career pivot. Since 2014, he had been working on a political science degree at Berkeley College in honor of his grandfather, who had also attended the college.
“I wanted to have a replacement if the construction didn’t work one day,” said Christopoulos, who is interested in a potential candidate.
During lockdown, Mr Christopoulos’ employment opportunities were limited. In addition, his student loan debt reached almost $ 40,000. So when he heard about the HOPE program, a job training program for low-income New Yorkers, Mr. Christopoulos was eager for the new experience.
“I wanted to give it a shot,” he says.
Mr. Christopoulos enrolled in a 15-week computer literacy program in July 2020 and received help with his resume and interview skills. “They are really helping you,” he said. “They change your life.”
HOPE staff also referred him to one of its partner organizations, the Community Service Society, a recipient of the Neediest Cases Fund, which used $ 307 of the Fund’s money to buy him an interview outfit.
Mr. Christopoulos works as a carpenter and will start a new carpentry job next year with better benefits, thanks to the help of HOPE. He credits the program with his newfound self-confidence, which is evident both in his work and in his interviews, as he has also started looking for a job in politics.
“I am not intimidated by anything,” he said.
Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund can be made online or by check.