Vets-2-Chefs culinary program helps homeless veterans find a way forward
By TIM FANNING | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. | Published: July 3, 2017
LAKEWOOD RANCH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The Air Force gave Collin Mapps the confidence he never thought he had, but leaving the military left him lost and without a purpose.
That is, until he joined Vets-2-Chefs with six other homeless veterans.
The program at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee helps returning veterans put the wars they fought behind them, and pull their lives together by entering a civilian career in the culinary arts.
Mapps and the other vets began a five-day boot camp on sanitation and culinary technique in early June as part of a 12-week culinary certification course and has since been working full time at Gecko's Grill and Pub. One day per week is dedicated to classes in the culinary lab, where instruction is tailored to the menus of the respective restaurants.
The veterans in the program are former Army members Beau Highland, Billy Nobles and Michael Rantz and Navy members Stephanie Smiggen and Adam Carter.
On the surface, Vets-2-Chefs is a program that trains homeless veterans in the culinary arts.
Beneath, it is much more.
Mapps joined the military to escape the path of drugs and jail that befell his older brothers.
Graduating boot camp, he says, was the happiest moment of his life.
"My self-esteem was the highest it had ever been in my life. It was like I was proud, you know, to say that I served and that I accomplished something that a lot of my friends and family thought was something I couldn't make it out of. They said, 'No way, you're too skinny. They're going to kill you in there.' But I did, and I made it," Mapps said.
"I was able to pay for my mother to fly to San Antonio to come see me graduate, and fly her back. It felt amazing to do that," Mapps said. "I even sent her a 70-inch plasma screen TV. I've never been able to do that before."
He was assigned to Airman First Class, 100th Security Force Squadron. His newfound purpose gave his 13 siblings something to look up to. Like Mapps, they could be somebody.
But the pride Mapps felt ended the day he learned his oldest brother, James, had died. Complications from diabetes claimed James at 26, the same age Mapps is now.
Depression hit hard and sent Mapps into a downward spiral. "It was depression, alcoholism and hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was using it as a tool to help self-medicate me from my problems," he said.
He received an honorable discharge in 2011.
"I was hanging out with the wrong people giving the wrong advice. The friends I hung out with were getting discharged and not always honorably."
Returning to Florida, Mapps wanted something that resembled what he had in the military, but he jumped from one low-paying job to another. He struggled to communicate with coworkers, friends and family. He couldn't fit in.
Mapps soon became homeless, drifting from couch to couch and relying on friends and relatives.
"Basically I was questioning if I still had what the military gave me, left inside me," he said.
He enrolled in Goodwill's Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program, hoping for a job. He wasn't successful, and walked away from the three job placements provided to him by the organization.
"At the time I just walked away because I had an ego. I was still trying to wrap my head around and escape from bad influences," Mapps said. "I was also thinking I was making twice as much in the military and that I wasn't being paid what I thought I was worth."
Vets-2-Chefs was Mapps' first success, and he expects to pursue a culinary career.
It's not easy for veterans to maintain jobs when they return from service. Goodwill's program provides the funding for uniforms, knife sets and bus passes, said C.J. Bannister, the organization's director of Veterans Services.
"Sometimes, you don't know what it is that is going to switch in them that is going to make them trust people that want to help them," Bannister said. "Sometimes, it's something as simple as seeing themselves in a suit the day before a job interview or meeting the right person."
For Mapps and the other veterans enrolled in the program, that person was Vets-2-Chefs founder Bryan Jacobs.
'A lifelong love of cooking'
Jacobs did two tours of duty in Iraq and was wounded in a mortar attack while serving as a Navy corpsman, accompanying Marines.
The horror and gore of roadside bombs didn't give him enough time to process what he saw and did, until his discharge in 2005.
Through Jacobs' post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, divorce, alcoholism and three months of living out of his Honda Accord in Virginia, he managed to pull through, and rediscover a lifelong love for cooking.
Nine years after Iraq, Jacobs rebounded to become something of an unofficial student ambassador for the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. A model of self-confidence, he soon became a favored chef of the Anheuser-Busch family in Boca Grande. He even prepared a meal for former President George W. Bush.
"He walked through a crowd of people who hold higher political status in life than I'll ever hope to achieve. He came right to me, stood out his hand and said, 'I want to thank you for your service. I know what you did and I know where you served in Iraq. You're a hero.'"
"I never thought in my life that, back in 2003, when I was crossing into another country and risking my life, that what I did mattered to the man who sent me down range," Jacobs said. "You talk about going from zero to hero, I didn't know what to think of myself from that point in time."
Jacobs never thought of himself as a hero. "I don't call myself a hero, but I feel like I've walked amongst a few. My job in the Marine Corps was to save lives, and that's exactly what I did. I did my job."
Jacobs served with his brother, Kevin, who was Marine Corps infantry. Kevin served two tours in Iraq. Both were part of the Iraq invasion and fought form south to the north.
Kevin also suffered from PTSD. Both relied heavily on each other for support. But unlike Jacobs, who has since stopped drinking, Kevin continued to push his limits.
That ended in 2013, when Kevin, 31, shot himself in Woodbine, Georgia.
"There was no note. There was nothing like that," said Jacobs. "Now I'm going through life, and I just don't know why. It's one of those things I put in my heart, thinking that he knew something I didn't — like how people know they are going to die, and they just know."
Motivated in part by Kevin's memory, Jacobs and USFSM developed the program to provide veteran training for hospitality-industry jobs.
Vets-2-Chefs was born.
Three weeks ago, Jacobs told his story to the homeless veterans at Goodwill. The story struck a chord with Mapps.
"I felt like Bryan was me, jumping around from place to place, trying to find something.
"He was homeless at one point, and I was doing the same thing. He said he lost his brother and I lost my brother," Mapps said. "But then he started talking about how he overcame all that, and I was like, if you could just teach me. I always needed a little guidance. I can be reckless sometimes, and not always the smartest, too. But I thought that if just a little bit of him rubbed off on me, I knew I could be a better person."
In a short time, Jacobs became more than a head chef and teacher to these homeless veterans. He became a mentor and guide.
"It's hard to come across individuals that care enough and are passionate enough to do something such as Chef Bryan," said Nobles, who was discharged in 1987. "It makes me feel good to see people with as much passion as Chef Bryan has, to give back and to help other veterans, and people in general. It's really amazing to see, and I've seen a lot in my life."
For Mapps, Vets-2-Chefs and Jacobs gave him more than a new career. When he donned his chef's uniform for the first time, he felt like something. "It gave me a sense of pride, to wear a uniform again like I did in the military," Mapps said.
He knows he can be a role model again for his siblings, especially for Nicholas, 11, who wants to grow up to be a YouTube star.
"I want to be able to tell him the sky's the limit."
Giving 1 percent more
At 26, Mapps is the youngest veteran enrolled in the Vets-2-chefs program.
On June 9, all seven veterans were offered full-time positions at local restaurants with a starting wage of $13 per hour.
Mapps was offered a line cook position at Gecko's, a position typically held after beginning as a prep or fryer.
Gecko's Executive Chef James Veldhouse said that Mapps made an impression.
"Collin impressed me because he has this eagerness to learn and a real passion for the business. He's a go-getter, and told me about his 13 brothers and sisters and how in a big family, communication is key," Veldhouse said. "He was also really confident. We need people who can work under pressure, and I thought he would make a good addition to our team."
This next stage will be the most difficult part for the veterans, as they try to adjust to new pressures in the kitchen, Jacobs said.
Transportation also will be difficult: Mapps said he would have to take two buses to get to work, if he cannot arrange a ride.
But Jacobs left them with solid advice. He advised them to give just 1 percent more than they did the day before at whatever kitchen they find themselves in. He reminded them that they already learned what it takes to be that 1 percent better.
"I told them to find the recipe of life for themselves," Jacobs said.
"The recipe is not looking at something for what it is, but what it is going to be."
©2017 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
Visit Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. at www.heraldtribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.