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Thu, Oct. 17

HOPE & HONOR: U.S. VETS culinary class teaches lessons that reach far beyond the dinner plate

PRESCOTT - Two nights before Valentine's Day, the dining room at the U.S. VETS Initiative transitional housing complex was a hubbub of festivity: red balloons dangled from the ceiling and the tables were covered with white linen tablecloths and floral centerpieces.

The smell of barbecue brisket stirred the appetites of residents and guests alike. Add to that trays of scalloped potatoes, collard greens, and mushrooms stuffed with crab meat.

The ambiance and menu were all part of showcasing the talents of four once-homeless veterans with a finale meal they prepared just before earning their graduation from the intensive, 13-week culinary arts program started just over a year ago. To date, 12 veterans have graduated from the program, several of them now employed in the local food industry. A couple were on hand to cheer on the newest graduates.

Program resident Lee Wagoner, 65, said the barbecue meal was a real treat after a day spent repairing his bicycle.

"That was just what I needed," said Wagoner who enrolled in the program just over three months ago. "Compliments to these graduates of the culinary class."

Henry Noorda, a 39-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who came to the U.S. VETS transitional program in October, said he came to the course with a little cooking experience but was able to strengthen skills he had long forgotten, as well as gain knowledge on newer preparation methods and techniques. He, too, gained an appreciation on how to balance nutrition and taste.

Most importantly, though, Noorda and his fellow students said this program inspired a healthier outlook about their circumstances, and prodded them to have confidence in their ability to build a better future. The other three graduates were Alan Morgan, Mark Klopf, and John Morgan. All four received their food service certification and a set of culinary knives and a chef's jacket with their names embroidered on the pocket.

Food Services Director Carolyn Baca, who is the course instructor, said this program is a mix of hard work, culinary do's and dont's, and some good old-fashioned fun.

Executive Director Carole Benedict lauded Baca for tailoring the program to the individual student needs and learning curve. The small class size and focused curriculum has turned this into a "robust" program that infuses hope in the students as they gain skills that will allow them to find meaningful work.

The transitional housing program serves 56 homeless veterans for up to two years. This is one of a number of programs offered to the veterans who over the course of their stay work with case managers to get their lives back on track so that they will eventually be ready to live independently again.

Guest Ernest Jones Sr., a U.S. Army veteran who is president of the Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe, said he has always had a "soft spot" in his heart for veterans, and appreciates the opportunity to do what he can to support agencies whose focus is on veterans.

His wife, Janet, joked that her husband wanted her to jot down the recipe for the very fine meal.

"It blew me away that 13 weeks passed so quickly," Noorda said. "I am so grateful to U.S. VETS for letting us have this program. It's been amazing."

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