For two decades, drug addiction consumed John Michael Johnson’s life. “I was not an actual member of society at all,” he said.
Before Mr. Johnson began rehab, he said, “I was slowly killing myself.”
In 2019, he became sober, got a driver’s license and moved into a new apartment in San Antonio with his girlfriend. They were planning for the future when Covid hit, and by April 2020, both were furloughed.
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While the pandemic exacerbated drug use for many in the United States, especially when the strictest lockdown measures were in effect, Mr. Johnson saw an opportunity to further improve and distance himself from his past.
“I was already thinking about leaving the collision repair industry,” Mr. Johnson said. “Then, when we were furloughed during Covid, we started going to food drives from the San Antonio Food Bank.”
It was while searching for food distribution dates on the food bank’s website that fall that Mr. Johnson came upon its Culinary Training Program.
Part of the network of Feeding America, a beneficiary of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, the San Antonio Food Bank runs a state-accredited 10-week culinary program to address hunger by training the unemployed and underemployed to feed others.
“Our food bank is committed to culinary training because we see that our kitchen can produce nourishing meals that impact people’s lives,” said Eric Cooper, president and chief executive of the food bank. “Ultimately, food is medicine. It’s what our bodies need.”
The goal of the program is to “get someone into the middle of the kitchen,” Mr. Cooper said, meaning preparing trainees for higher-paying jobs in the industry, so they can continue to learn and advance.
Mr. Johnson, 45, was eager to start fresh after 20 years of working in collision repair, in which he started apprenticing a year after graduating from high school.
“It was just a high-stress and toxic job,” said Mr. Johnson, who had come to see the long hours and tight deadlines as a breeding ground for drug use that contributed to his cycle of addiction.
In April, Mr. Johnson began the culinary training program at the food bank, which distributes thousands of meals a week to vulnerable populations.
“It’s made me appreciate even more what the San Antonio Food Bank does because I got to see what they do firsthand,” he said.
Mr. Johnson was scouted by a country club even before he graduated. After working there for a time, he moved to his current job as a line cook at a mall restaurant. Though he is unsure if he will remain in the food industry long term, he has come away with valuable lessons.
“The food bank gave me more self-confidence,” he said. “It’s made my life better. It’s made me stronger.”
Theodore Christopoulos of Brooklyn has also been shifting to a new career, and has built confidence through the assistance of nonprofit groups.
Born and raised in Bay Ridge, Mr. Christopoulos always admired his father and grandfather, who served in the military. Their work ethic in their later careers in construction and law enforcement also instilled a “never give up” mentality in Mr. Christopoulos.
Under the guidance of his father, Mr. Christopoulos, 34, started construction work after graduating high school. He worked with different companies as a carpenter, and took classes at the Institute of Design and Construction, which is defunct, and the New York City College of Technology.
By the time the pandemic hit New York last year, Mr. Christopoulos was considering a career pivot. Since 2014, he had been working toward a political science degree at Berkeley College as a nod to his grandfather, who had also attended the college.
“I wanted to have a backup if construction doesn’t work out one day,” explained Mr. Christopoulos, who is interested in potentially running for office.
During the lockdown, Mr. Christopoulos’s job opportunities were limited. In addition, his student loan debt had reached close to $40,000. So when he learned about the HOPE Program, a job training program geared toward low-income New Yorkers, Mr. Christopoulos was eager for the new experience.
“I wanted to give it a shot,” he said.
Mr. Christopoulos enrolled in July 2020 in a 15-week computer literacy program and received help with his résumé and interviewing skills. “They really help you,” he said. “They change your life.”
The staff at HOPE also referred him to one of its partner organizations, Community Service Society, a beneficiary of The Neediest Cases Fund, which used $307 in Fund money to buy him interview attire.
Mr. Christopoulos is working as a carpenter and is beginning a new carpentry job next year with better benefits, thanks to help from HOPE. He credits the program for his newfound sense of self-confidence, which comes across both in his work and in interviews, since he has also started looking for jobs in politics.
“I’m not intimidated by anything,” he said.