After serving 27 years in prison, Demetrius Newman stood before the crowd at the Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduation as a man on the precipice of a new life.

Determined to “rewrite his story,” Newman enrolled in the 14-week culinary job training program with some trepidation after spending more than half of his life in prison. Newman joined a gang when he was just 13 years old, he said. He learned how to read and write while behind bars.

Demetrius Newman addresses the audience during the Chicago's Community Kitchens graduation.

Demetrius Newman addresses the audience during the Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduation.

Earlier on the morning of his graduation, Newman was offered a full-time job with a food service company. From gangs to unions, Newman said with a smile, prompting a ripple of laughter from the audience.

“Chicago’s Community Kitchens has changed my whole life,” Newman said. “When I was a teenager, when I went to prison, I didn’t care. Back then, I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid to live. Today, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Chicago’s Community Kitchens is a key component of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s efforts to eliminate the root causes of hunger. The rigorous training provides culinary and life skills instruction to people who are often facing significant barriers to work, including poverty, unstable housing and former incarceration. Since beginning in 1998, more than 1,300 students have graduated from the program.

The vast majority of graduates – more than 90 percent – find full-time employment with restaurants, caterers and food service companies.

A Chicago's Community Kitchens graduate walks up to receive her certificate

A graduate walks up to receive her certificate

In addition to the 14-week program, Chicago’s Community Kitchens also recently launched a four-week hospitality and customer service training in partnership with Cara, a workforce development nonprofit. That pilot program prepares students for front-of-the-house jobs as servers or baristas.

Chicago’s Community Kitchens isn’t easy. In fiscal year 2019, about 61 percent of the students graduated from the program. Many students navigate difficult personal matters, often with the assistance of the program’s student services team, which offers an array of support services.

The Chicago’s Community Kitchens team listens to a student speaker at graduation.

The Chicago’s Community Kitchens team listens to a student speaker at graduation.

Sydni Romano knows about overcoming challenges.

During the training, Romano, 19, woke up at 5 a.m. to catch her first bus to the Food Depository. After her day with Chicago’s Community Kitchens was done, she’d race home to get her book bag before going to night classes at Kennedy-King College, often not getting home until after 10 p.m.

Those long days paid off for Romano, who was hired to work at the Spoke & Bird café and bakehouse. She hopes to own her own bakery someday.

“Chicago’s Community Kitchens taught me so much in a such a short amount of time,” Romano said.

Sydni Romano, a Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduate, is interviewed by WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore.

Sydni Romano, a Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduate, is interviewed by WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore.

For Newman, his new life is just beginning. Eventually, he’d like to own his own food truck, he said, and serve soul food or perhaps even vegan cuisine. Whatever happens next, he has a new home with Chicago’s Community Kitchens.

“Wherever my heart leads me, that’s where I’ll go,” Newman said. “But no matter what I do, I know I want to be a beacon of light for other people in the community. If people can learn anything from my story, it’s that if I can do it, so can anyone else.”

Listen to WBEZ’s story from the Chicago’s Community Kitchens graduation.

Learn more about Chicago’s Community Kitchens.