In 1987, Seattle chef David Lee realized that homeless shelters in Seattle were not serving the best quality food to their residents; instead it was a mix of whatever shelters could get their hands on.
So Lee stepped in, forming a for-profit business that provides tasty, healthy food to shelters.
“Over time he got to know a lot of the shelter residents and he had this idea to help some of them,” said Stephanie Schoo, marketing and communications director for FareStart. “They could actually help him prepare the meals for the shelter, empowering them to provide food for themselves and the larger shelter community while also giving them a skill set.”
Over time, Lee’s vision transformed into FareStart’s present-day culture of transforming lives through job training in their Seattle-based restaurant, cafes, and catering services, while still providing food to shelters and school lunch programs.
To date, more than 2,400 adult and youth graduates have overcome homelessness, mental illness, and/or addiction to cycle through FareStart’s 16-week program. Upon completion of the program, 90 percent of graduates find applicable employment within 90 days. Eastside eateries like El Gaucho, Ivar’s, PCC Natural Markets, and Purple Cafe and Wine Bar are just a few of the places where graduates have found employment.
One of these graduates enjoyed his FareStart experience so much that he left a kitchen job to return to the FareStart community in any capacity it could offer.
54-year-old Paul Denis, who now works front of house at the restaurant, came to FareStart after a series of life events that left him homeless in a new city with a dependence on alcohol.
“My life partner of 28 years passed away; my son turned 28 years old and moved out; the company I worked for sold and went out of business,” Denis said. “It kind of knocked the wind out of my sails a little so I came from Boston to Seattle to recreate a life, to reinvent myself and start over.”
Denis made a commitment to himself to overcome his addiction to enroll in the clean and sober FareStart program, a goal he met in just four months.
“I remember standing across the street when I got here,” he said of the day he enrolled with FareStart. “I took my hat off, and threw it up in the air, and shouted out ‘we’re going to make it after all’.”
Once under FareStart’s wing, Denis was able to utilize wrap around services which provide participants with mental health services, facilitates stable housing placement, and teaches life skills.
While Denis said he enjoyed learning life skills to help him find worth and viability in himself again, the greatest benefit to FareStart’s program was the sense of community he instantly felt.
“I have two hands, at one point one of my hands reached out to FareStart for help and my community here grabbed hold of that hand and pulled,” he said. “I worked while holding on to that hand until I could stand on my feet, now I have that second hand out to pull others up.”
For many program participants, addiction can be the largest hurdle to overcome.
“Sometimes folks aren’t ready,” Schoo said. “They aren’t ready to make that commitment or they can’t, it is not uncommon for people to start the program, decide they aren’t ready, come back a month or so later. Keep trying it over and over again.”
When they are ready, Denis will be waiting — hand outstretched — to help in any way he can.