Finding A Fresh Start At FareStart

FareStart's sign outside their 7th and Virginia location

“Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.” ~Richard von Weizsaecker

Redemption can be a fluid idea. What it means. How much effort it takes to achieve. How it’s measured. What if achieving it means reforming your entire sense of self and how you approach your life? Whatever the journey, there are difficult obstacles to face and a lot of mirrors looking back at you.

These are just a few of the many challenges students at FareStart’s culinary training program in downtown Seattle must face. FareStart’s mission is about “transforming lives and empowering homeless and disadvantaged men, women, and families to achieve self-sufficiency through life-skills, job training, and employment in the food service industry.” In other words, FareStart brings hope to those who lost it, yet are willing to go out on a very difficult limb to get it back. It’s not easy. There’s no walk in the park scheduled in this 16-week itinerary. As a sometime volunteer for FareStart’s Guest Chef Night on Thursdays, I’ve witnessed up close the dedication, desire, and enthusiasm these men and women have subscribed to in order to change their lives for the better. If you’ve seen those students stand on those stairs and raise that graduation plaque, it means something. You knew redemption was worth the struggle. It’s written all over their smiles.

I am pretty sure it was early 2007 when I came across FareStart on the web. I was already more than passively interested in the concept of homelessness, and upon stumbling onto http://farestart.org, I couldn’t wait to find out more about it – how big they were, how influential it was, and where they came from.

Initally created by chef and entrepreneur David Lee in 1988 using area church kitchens to serve the homeless and disadvantaged, Common Meals eventually secured a space at the old Josephinum Hotel. Soon realizing the value of “teaching a man to fish and feeding him for a lifetime,” Lee instituted a nonprofit job training program, FareStart, to help the homeless population learn to feed themselves through the culinary arts. Due to their comprehensive wrap-around services including substance-abuse counseling, financial education, housing and job placement, FareStart knows 16 weeks of culinary training isn’t enough. In my opinion, this represents the true strength of FareStart.

In 2007, FareStart moved from their older and limited location on 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle to a sparkling 33,000 square-foot facility at 7th and Virginia. The positive numbers would soon catch up to the venue. Graduation totals maxed at 59 students in 2007. Two years later in 2009, FareStart provided a better future to 121 graduates. In the tough economic year of 2010? 102 graduates. What’s more, through FareStart’s job placement program, 82% of graduates secured employment within 90 days of graduation in 2010. Their journey doesn’t come to an end upon graduation. It’s just beginning.

Neither is FareStart’s mission complete upon students’ graduation. Their capabilities are so much greater and influential than that. In 2010, 223,770 meals were served to area children through 25 child-care centers while 270,745 meals were delivered to homeless men and women via 14 area shelters. That’s 365 days a year. Somehow I think David Lee approves.

My experience as a volunteer at Guest Chef Night on Thursdays was truly eye-opening. Aside from marveling at how efficient the students are, you’re moving all the time and there’s always something to do. I work(ed) primarily as a table-runner, taking the various courses from the kitchen and delivering them to the appropriate table on the floor. Some nights are busier than others; summer can be a little lighter than the fall and winter GCNs. That’s to be expected. If you get a higher-profile guest chef or restaurant scheduled, however, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, it can get pretty crazy!

There was that one GCN though. The mezzanine level was short a waiter, and they needed help with some tables. Hey, I’ve never waited before. Let’s do it. That was a bad idea. Per my nature, I over-thought the situation. I just couldn’t differentiate when to intrude as opposed to knowing when to leave them alone. Needless to say, I was downstairs table-running the following week and never looked back! I’m used to the exercise anyway, and there’s plenty of exercise to be had when you’re a table-runner; walking all over the place, lifting trays all night, etc. So naturally, one might ask, “Have you ever dropped the tray?” No. Not yet anyway(knock on wood). But something tells me I’m now due simply for addressing it.

When it comes to Guest Chef Nights, none of it is possible without the undying support from area restaurants and their chefs. These elite chefs are taking their valuable time to come to FareStart and share their professionalism and honed philosophies with the students in order to help them get better. Many of them are repeat contributers, which makes it all the more admirable. Just to be clear, these are not simply run-of-the-mill chefs. These are the crème-de-la-crème of the Pacific Northwest restaurant scene. There are way too many restaurants to name, but let’s just say if you name a place, they’ve contributed to FareStart. Bottom line, I’m always in awe of the massive culinary talent and heart coming in to Guest Chef Night week after week.

It still begins and ends with the students. The strength that comes with deciding you want to fundamentally change your life is a scary thing. What if you fail? What if you simply aren’t good enough? There are a million excuses to do it THEIR way, yet despite their difficult past, these people had the guts to let their old lives go and accept an unknown alternative. Sometimes redemption is waiting for those who open their eyes and let go rather than the ones that hold on to what they think they can’t live without.

That’s what FareStart does. Opening eyes and doors all at the same time.

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