Pivoting to New Horizons With Career Help

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."

He got sober in 2019, obtained a driver's licence, and moved into a new San Antonio apartment with his girlfriend. When Covid struck, they were planning for the future and both were furloughed in April 2020.

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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."

While searching the website of the food bank for fall distribution dates, Mr. Johnson discovered its Culinary Training Program.

Part of Feeding America's network, The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund beneficiaries, the San Antonio Food Bank offers a 10-week state-accredited culinary program that addresses hunger by training the unemployed 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. "Food is medicine." It's the only thing our bodies need.

Cooper explained that the program's purpose is to "get somebody into the middle kitchen". He said that it prepares trainees to be promoted to higher-paying positions in the industry.

45-year old Mr. Johnson wanted to start fresh after 20+ years of experience in collision repair. He first began apprenticing as a student one year after graduating.

Johnson said that he saw the job as toxic and high-stress. He also felt that it was a breeding ground for drug abuse, which led to him falling into a vicious 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 it easier for me to appreciate the San Antonio Food Bank because I was able see firsthand what they do," 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. He is not sure if the industry will continue for him long-term but he has learned valuable lessons.

He stated that the food bank had given him more self-confidence. "It has improved my quality of life. It's made me stronger."

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img alt="Theodore Christopoulos received assistance with interview clothing." src="https://static01.nyt.com/images/2021/12/13/neediest-cases/00ncf-career-2/00ncf-career-2-articleLarge.jpg?quality=75auto=webpdisable=upscale"/>
Theodore Christopoulos received assistance with interview clothing. Credit... Amir Hamja in The New York Times

Theodore Christopoulos from Brooklyn is also a shifter in his career and has found confidence through the help of non-profit groups.

Born in Bay Ridge and raised by his grandparents, Mr. Christopoulos was always inspired by his father and grandfather who had served in the army. Christopoulos was influenced by his father and grandfather's work ethic during their later careers as construction workers and police officers.

Mr. Christopoulos, now 34, began his career in construction after he graduated high school. He worked as a carpenter for several companies and also attended classes at both the Institute of Design and Construction which is now defunct and the New York City College of Technology.

Christopoulos was contemplating a career shift when the New York pandemic struck last year. 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 a backup for construction if it doesn't work out one time," said Mr. Christopoulos. He expressed interest in running to run for office.

During the lockdown Mr. Christopoulos had limited job opportunities. Also, his student debt had reached nearly $40,000. Christopoulos was eager to get started with the HOPE Program, a program that offers job training for New Yorkers of low income.

He said, "I just wanted to give it my best shot."

In July 2020, Mr. Christopoulos began a 15-week computer literacy course. He also received support with his resume writing and interviewing skills. He stated, "They really help" "They can transform your life."

HOPE staff also referred him a partner organization, Community Service Society. Community Service Society is a beneficiary from The Neediest Cases Fund. Community Service Society used $307 Fund money to purchase him interview attire.

Christopoulos is currently working as a carpenter. Thanks to HOPE, he is starting a new carpentry position next year. He attributes the program to his increased self-confidence. This confidence is evident in his work, as well as in interviews.

"I don't feel intimidated by any thing," he stated.

You can make a donation online or by check to The Neediest Cases Fund.

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