After he got out of the Navy, Samuel Kowalski spent decades driving forklifts and working in warehouses. They were jobs he did strictly for the paycheck; he did what he loved – cooking for his wife and kids – on his own time.
“I figured it was time to do something I love to do, instead of something I have to do to survive,” said Kowalski, 53, of McKinley Park.
For the past 12 years, Oliver’s Kitchen has offered culinary training to people in need, many of whom are low-income, unemployed, or seeking to re-enter the workforce after getting off welfare or out of jail.
Now the program is targeting a new demographic with different needs: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
The program – billed as a “new, compact culinary training designed specifically for the veteran” – will condense two semesters of coursework into 16 weeks. Creators say that’s ideal for veterans who are eager to get back to work after returning home.
“We designed it for them because they want to get on with their lives,” said Dan Gibbons, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation.
The project is good for the community and good for the organization, Gibbons said: It fills a need for vets and taps into an abundant source of federal funding.
“It’s just common sense,” said Gibbons, who spent six years in the Army Reserves in the 1970s. “All these young people are coming back, needing a job. We have a job-training program that is lacking in funding because the state’s broke. However, the VA (Dept. of Veterans Affairs) funding will never go away.”
Oliver’s Kitchen is just one of many organizations tapping into a new source of government money that broadens benefits for veterans.
Last month, President Barack Obama signed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Bill, which allows veterans to use their educational benefits for vocational and certification programs – not just college degrees, as was previously the case.
This is a step in the right direction toward giving veterans broader career options, said Dan Grant, a veteran and director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Vets often have a hard time re-entering the workforce, especially when the skills they gained in the military are difficult to apply in civilian life, he said.
“Take me – I was in artillery,” Grant said. “Clearly, there aren’t a lot of artillery jobs in the civilian world. But these soldiers, Marines, airmen, they’re coming back with great managerial skills sets” that can easily be transferred to the kitchen, he said.
The 24-credit program is being offered in collaboration with St. Augustine College, but classes will meet at the Oliver’s Kitchen facility at 4345 W. Division St. Students will learn everything from food handling and kitchen math skills to a wide range of cooking, such as sauces, seafood and pastries. Tuition and fees can be completely covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill or Pell grants.
Class size is capped at 16 students, and Gibbons said he expects it will fill up.
“I’m already thinking of how we can expand, because there are going to be so many people coming back that need a good, honest living, and in the food industry, there is so much need,” he said.
Current plans include sessions with a job developer who will teach participants how to interview for culinary jobs. Down the line, Gibbons said he hopes to offer an “entrepreneurial piece” to show veterans how to start their own businesses.
Oliver’s Kitchen’s programs have already paid off for Kowalski, who was stationed in Scotland from 1974 to 1976. He now works as a cook at a Downtown Chicago deli. He said he believes the program will be appealing to younger veterans.
“There’s a lot of veterans getting out of the wars don’t have a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I think it’s great.”
Participants for the veterans’ classes are being recruited now; courses are expected to start this month. For information about the program, contact Donna Greer at the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation at 773-252-3663, ext. 113.