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Tucked behind a fence on whip-thin Woodstock Street in North Philly, the Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK) is changing lives.

Founded in 2000 as an adult culinary arts program for low-income individuals, PCK is a job-training program run by Philabundance, a 30-year-old hunger-relief organization that feeds 72,000 people per week. But PCK is about more than feeding people. It’s about teaching people the skills they need to learn to feed themselves.

The 14-week program is free for participants. It includes 500 hours of classroom and hands-on instruction. Graduates receive the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Certificate and job placement assistance. Completing the program is not easy—only 55 percent of participants do so. But finishing pays huge dividends. On average, 73 percent of PCK graduates remain employed in the food service industry 12 months after graduation, 76 percent of them obtain permanent housing, and 67 percent obtain bank accounts.

In a city where one in four residents live in poverty, that kind of success needs to be replicated. So how does a cooking program manage to lift people out of poverty when so many other approaches fail? It does so by teaching people to change. 

“The culinary [part] is just an overlay,” Philabundance’s Candace Matthews-Bass told me in an interview. “We find that people think that what they are on the outside and the way that society defines them is the most important thing to be. But if you haven’t conquered what’s going on on the inside and decided that you’re important, or special, or who you’ve been isn’t enough, then none of that outside stuff will matter.”

Making such changes takes more than just willingness, said Shontae Graham, organizational trainer for Philabundance. “It takes the desire to do whatever is necessary to create this new and improved person,” he said. “It takes diligence. It takes collaboration with peers, finding the right peers within their class to hold each other accountable. It takes humility…. It’s not easy here.”

PCK, you see, is not about cooking. It is about life. It is about teaching an ex-offender that he cannot return to a life of crime and expect to succeed. It is about convincing a substance abuser that drugs and alcohol are not the cure, but the problem. It is about teaching those who seek to change their lives that they must learn a different way.

That’s a lesson that won’t come easy for PCK student Stanley Scott. At 54, Scott is bearded and burly, jaded, and by his own admission, stubborn.

“I like to listen to myself,” Scott told me in an interview. “I never had to listen to nobody. Not no dad, no older brother, so I listen to myself, and if I’m wrong I’m wrong.”

That philosophy has yielded the West Philadelphia native a life of ups and downs. As a teen he earned a robbery conviction, then went on to own a remodeling business. That fell apart with a gun conviction. Scott said he served nine years on that latest charge. But his life wasn’t always that way.

As a child his mother, Julia, taught him how to cook, sew and iron. She taught him independence, while at the same time developing a tight bond with her youngest child.

That bond remained until Julia died in 2007, throwing him into a cycle of grief that he said was almost unbearable. Seven years later, Scott has channeled that grief into a vision. He wants to start a catering business and call it Julia’s Kitchen.  

“My family’s all I have, so me going into a catering business with my mom’s name, it would be like a good memory.”

To succeed, Scott will have to take direction. He will have to be malleable. He will have to change. Scott and other students don’t do that solely through PCK’s cooking lessons. They do so through its life lessons.

Shontae Graham, 40, teaches those lessons. Bald and earnest, with a salt-and-pepper goatee, Graham is a man of faith and integrity. I met him through a mutual friend about a decade ago, and I know him to be a dedicated husband and father.

It wasn’t always that way. As a young man, he was simply trying to survive in a world where physical and moral poverty surrounded him.

In the 1980s, Graham saw the men around him embrace criminal lifestyles. He saw relatives strung out on drugs. He watched his family fracture, and in middle school, he spent several months without a parent in the household.

He managed to survive all that with a mix of intellect and guile. By the time Graham went to Edinboro College in Western Pennsylvania, however, he was accustomed to a culture that flouted rules, and wound up in a jail cell after numerous driving violations, including driving without a license.

“That’s where I had this cathartic moment of, ‘I wasn’t supposed to be here, and we have to ensure that this never happens again.’ ”

Graham, who went on to earn a master’s degree in human services from Lincoln University, often shares his story with program participants while challenging them to forego excuses, to eschew blame-shifting and to embrace responsibility.

That’s sometimes the hardest thing for them to do.

“We’re trying to get our students to look at life, jobs, opportunities, gaining a different perspective, gaining a different worldview,” Graham told me. “Trying to move them from an external locus of control, where everything that happens to them, the reason behind it has to do with somebody else, or the system, or the proverbial man… to an internal locus of control where what happens is the result of what I put my mind to, or what I decide to commit to.”

The shift begins on the inside, Graham said, and making that shift is necessary so that when opportunities come along and financial resources improve, students are ready to use those opportunities and resources to become self-sufficient.

“It’s about you and what are you willing to do to address how you’ve gotten to this place in life.… Are you willing to do all the work necessary to get it done? Success doesn’t discriminate, but it does have a path. Are you willing to make the detours that you need to in order to get on that path?”

Those are the kinds of questions we should all be asking. Not only to those seeking to escape poverty, but also to those who say they want to help. If we really want to make a dent in Philadelphia’s crushing poverty rate, we have to be willing to put in the necessary work.

Supporting programs like the Philabundance Community Kitchen is certainly a good place to start.

Solomon Jones

Solomon Jones