A Recipe for Redemption ; Program Helps Homeless Gain Skills That Win Jobs

By Silja J. A. Talvi | The Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

A Recipe for Redemption ; Program Helps Homeless Gain Skills That Win Jobs


Silja J. A. Talvi, The Christian Science Monitor


Pat Donahue's workday tasks befit the life of a lead cook at one of Seattle's swanky downtown hotels.

Breakfasts are prepared for hotel guests, prep work is assigned, a special of the day is planned, and the hotel staff must be fed. On top of that, there's the occasional evening banquet for 1,000 people.

On days like this, says Mr. Donahue, a 17-hour shift is just part of doing the job he loves. Rising to this level of work is not bad for someone who, just three years ago, was living on the streets, chronically unemployed, and grappling with a drug problem.

Back then, a friend told him about FareStart, an intensive job- training program in Seattle that prepares homeless people for jobs in the food-service industry. It was there that Donahue turned his life around.

His case is far from unique. Of the nearly 500 people who have taken the "Life Skills" training program developed for FareStart in 1997, 91 percent had jobs upon graduation. And more than 80 percent remained employed after one year. In contrast, only 20 percent of homeless people who found jobs nationwide were able to hold them for more than three months, according to a December 1999 study by The Urban Institute.

The Life Skills program is now being extended to other nonprofit organizations, including the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes and culinary training programs in Glasgow and Eugene, Ore.

The program's curriculum was adapted from the corporate world - where clarity is key to achieving goals - to suit the day-to-day struggles of homeless and formerly homeless people. It teaches the value of communicating effectively, participating in groups, recognizing one's own abilities and contributions, and taking responsibility for interactions with other people.

"You learn a lot about yourself in that program," Donahue says. "I didn't like the direction I was heading in, and I knew I needed to make a change."

Donahue now credits these skills with changing his life - and his relationship to the world around him.

The idea to start a life-skills program came from Cheryl Sesnon, who served as FareStart's executive director from 1994 until early this year.

A former cocaine addict, Ms. Sesnon "hit bottom" in the early 1980s, when at the age of 25, she tried to kill herself. "I felt like I never fit in. I'd walk around and see people smiling and happy and think, 'They must just be really ignorant. They don't get it.' That was my reality ... [It was] that feeling of beating your head up against the wall nonstop and having no idea how to get out of that pattern."

Sesnon drifted through several low-level restaurant jobs until she decided to start "looking at people whose lives were successful … [and] asking a lot of questions."

The strategy helped. Soon, she moved into managerial positions. By the mid-1980s, she was running her own catering company.

Sesnon eventually decided the steps she took - resetting priorities, establishing goals, and sharpening the way she communicated with employers - could help others turn their lives around, too.

When she first arrived at FareStart (then called Common Meals) in 1993, drug abuse was rampant, she says. One waitress was working barefoot. Worse yet, nobody seemed to care.

Sesnon attempted to informally relate her life lessons to her students, but she realized a standardized program was necessary to meet their specific psychological needs. …

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