Eight men who enrolled in the Salvation Army's free six-month substance abuse treatment program said they had no idea they'd be leaving with a college certificate.
Through a partnership between the Salvation Army and Augusta Technical College, the program's participants were able to take a 10-week culinary arts course.
The participants, who resided at the organization's Greene Street site, all graduated from the class with honors, said Dennis Harrison, the program director for the substance abuse program. The men received their certificates during a ceremony at the college Sept. 21.
"In our rehab program we offer individual and group counseling, group therapy, drug education, church services and Bible study as part of their recovery process," Mr. Harrison said. One of the program's participants already has found a job and left. Another graduate did not wish to comment. The remaining six were eager to share their experiences in a phone interview Sept. 30.
Felix McKinney, 33, has one month left in the program, which he left Swainsboro, Ga., to enroll in "to get myself situated," he said. Having recently started work at the Harvest Table on Washington Road, Mr. McKinney said he spent his last month saving for a place to live. Since he'd always enjoyed cooking, the class convinced him he wants to work in the restaurant business.
"It was great. We had an excellent teacher. We got to do a lot of cooking and a lot of eating," he said, adding the program has been "truly a blessing."
"To come from where I came from ... My family was there when I graduated; they were proud," he said. "This program sure has helped me out a lot, I'll tell you that."
Memphis, Tenn., native Melvin Jones, 38, landed in the program after leaving the Augusta Transition Center following a prison sentence for burglary, which he said supported his drug habit. He is working on job leads.
"I'm still excited - that hadn't worn off yet," he said.
Completing a formal course in food services had been a dream of his, he said, but he is more grateful for what the class led to.
"I just enrolled in an engineering program at Augusta Tech. and I plan to get an engineering degree," he said. "This is a wonderful area for me, with school and lots of employment opportunities, so I want to take advantage of those."
Ernest Williams, of Barnwell, S.C., also is working on job leads. He said he had worked in the restaurant business for 20 years, but was not interested in the class.
"But after I got into it, it was interesting. There was a lot I learned about preparing food and about storing food. I realized how many things I was doing wrong," he said, adding the experience taught him about a lot more than food.
"Since I've gotten older, I realized about applying myself," the 48-year-old said. "This was the first time I really studied and read and prepared for my classes. I made good grades and was blown away because I realized how much potential I have."
Durham, N.C., native Oliver Harris, 34, came from Atlanta to the program nearly six months ago. He already has found a job and plans to go back to school in a year, after getting his own place and transportation, he said. He said he learned "more than what I knew about food," in the class, which he hopes will lead him back to the hotel business.
"We learned how to cut fish, prepare food, present it on a plate, store it; the class was very interesting to me," he said. "My field was hotel management so taking (the) class helped with my resume."
Joseph Walker, of Augusta, said he had five days left in the program and already had a job and a home to go to. Having earned the certificate, the 47-year-old cook for the Salvation Army's kitchen, said he wanted to take the class and now feels great about himself.
"I've been cooking for the last 15 years at a Marriott. I'm also a certified bartender," he said. "That's the only type of work I ever did, so I wanted to be certified."
Reach C. Samantha McKevie at (706) 823-3552 or firstname.lastname@example.org.