It’s Wednesday morning at A Safe Haven Foundation’s homeless shelter in North Lawndale, which means Chef Marshall Galbreath is a busy man.
The Army veteran briskly maneuvers through the kitchen, instructing his culinary team preparing the day’s lunch for shelter residents. He stirs the rice simmering on the stove top. He hustles outside to check on the food pantry underway. In the hallways, he shouts greetings and daps fists of colleagues passing by.
And for a few minutes, Galbreath pauses to coach a resident who is trying to transform his life into something better.
“I’ve learned how to be someone who has compassion and empathy and understanding and care,” said Galbreath, 53. “That’s the person I am today.”
Ten years ago, Galbreath was a resident of the shelter, living there on parole with an ankle monitor after serving time in prison on drug charges. Today, he’s the executive chef and food service director of A Safe Haven Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing shelter, jobs and education to people struggling with addiction.
Founded in 1994, A Safe Haven’s North Lawndale shelter provides transitional housing to more than 400 people – single men and women, as well as families with children. Partnering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the shelter provides hot meals daily to its residents. A weekly food pantry offers groceries to members of the community.
A Safe Haven also delivers groceries to older adults and people with disabilities who are unable to leave their homes.
A Safe Haven volunteer places eggs into a bag for a woman at the weekly food pantry.Like many of the Food Depository’s partners, Safe Haven has seen a significant increase in people needing food assistance during the ongoing pandemic. In June, the food pantry served more than 460 households – an increase of about 25 percent from normal times.
“It’s been really hard,” said Ruth Anne Brown, 31, who lost her full-time job at Foot Locker in March when many businesses were forced to close. “I just keep faith.”
Sean Young, 52, learned of the Safe Haven’s food pantry while working there as a temporary employee. Since the pandemic hit, Young has been down on his luck like many Americans, but his spirits have remained up. The pantry will help feed his family.
“Life is simple,” Young said. “You help people to the best of your capabilities and your blessings will come back to you.”
That’s a fair distillation of what Fred Townsend has learned to embrace at Safe Haven, where he now works as part of Galbreath’s culinary team. Last June, Townsend arrived at Safe Haven after a stint in Cook County Jail.
He was addicted to the drug lifestyle, Townsend said. He was also deeply unhappy.
One year later, all of that’s changed, said Townsend, 60, a tall man with a gravelly voice. Each morning, he wakes at 2 a.m. to report to work at Safe Haven at 4:45 a.m. He’s in the process of getting a car. He hopes to get married soon. He’s working on repairing his relationships with his adult children.
“My life is the best it’s ever been,” Townsend said. “It’s never too late for anyone. It’s not too late for me to learn. If I stop being willing to learn, I’ve cut myself off.”
Townsend credits Galbreath’s mentorship for helping him find this happiness. He also credits the culture of a Safe Haven, where the motto is: “Aspire. Transform. Sustain.”
Galbreath’s own struggles began when he returned home from serving in the military, he recalled. He remembers the exact day he arrived at the shelter on parole: April 12, 2010.
Even in those early days, he remembers having conversations with the founders, Neli Vazquez-Rowland and her husband, Brian Rowland. Despite overseeing a large nonprofit, they still stop in the hallways and talk to residents, Galbreath said. They ask how they can help.
Their overarching message, he said: Get what you came for.
“Marshall’s inspiring story is a perfect example of the type of stories that emerge from A Safe Haven,” Vazquez-Rowland said. “And it serves as a constant reminder to all of us of why we must continue to do the work that we do in a way that helps empower people to achieve their full potential.”
Ten years after arriving at Safe Haven, Galbreath has earned various culinary degrees and certifications. But the pieces of paper mean much less to him than the standards they represent. He’s proud of his accomplishments, but he’s more gratified by helping others at the shelter.
“It’s not about me,” Galbreath said. “It’s about what I can do for you.”
In the interview, Galbreath quoted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to make a point on human resilience. He also pointed to a quote on his office wall from another deep thinker, one who hails from a galaxy far, far away.
“Do or do not,” Yoda said. “There is no try.”