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things that work

Former student Glenda Phillips, now an instructor assistant, works in the kitchen at HAVE Culinary Training Society's café in Vancouver.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the fourth of a 12-day series, we profile a B.C. program, policy or organization that's having a positive impact, against the odds.

The HAVE Café welcomes patrons with the warmth of a family kitchen: Smiling, white-clad employees bustle about, gliding over the black-and-white checkered tile floor to serve customers home-style offerings – omelettes, sandwiches and pastas – ordered from a menu drawn in chalk.

It's a quainter environment than many expect, given its Downtown Eastside address and the fact that most employees have struggled with multiple barriers to employment. It was for these reasons that Glenda Phillips initially dismissed a flyer for the café's culinary program she saw posted at the Salvation Army's Belkin House, a downtown Vancouver transitional residence in which she was staying, despite being on the lookout for a job.

"When it said east side, I thought I wouldn't really fit the profile," she said. "I was thinking maybe you had to have really severe addiction issues. I wasn't 100 per cent sure if I would be taking someone's spot."

But times were difficult for Ms. Phillips, who had recently ended a troubling relationship and struggled to make ends meet after moving to Vancouver from Toronto in 2010. Seeming embarrassed, she admits that she collected cans for a period to get by. She drank more than she should have. She was severely depressed. When someone at Vancouver's Open Door Group recommended that she give the HAVE Café a try, she did, signing up in February.

Opened in 2006, the HAVE Café and culinary training society provides training for food-service job and work opportunities to people in Vancouver who have barriers to employment. These barriers can include mental and physical disabilities, addiction, poverty, homelessness or language difficulties. During an eight-week course, students learn everything from knife skills to social skills, and are served a hot breakfast and lunch every day.

Chef Amber Anderson, head instructor and executive director of the HAVE culinary training society, says more than 500 students have gone through the program, with about 75 per cent going on to work at other businesses, including big restaurants and hotel chains. The society has hired a few graduates, like Ms. Phillips, to come back and teach.

On a rainy December afternoon, Ms. Phillips takes a break from her role as an instructor assistant – on this day helping to debone turkeys for holiday meals – to reflect on the program she says has been "huge" in turning her life around.

"To me, this is my safety net, my home, my purpose," she said. "I was very aware that I had to be here, that the longer I spent here, the better it would be for me."

Her eyes well up with tears thinking about her darker days, the details of which she would rather not discuss.

"There were issues that were keeping me from reaching my full potential … When you come here, you really have a purpose. You really feel a sense of responsibility.

"I feel so excited and energized. I feel so lucky. Sometimes I'm getting ready and I think, 'I'm glad I'm getting ready for work.' I love it here."

Glen Lamont, a student counsellor at HAVE, said many new students enter the program with trust and self-esteem issues from "years of having doors slammed in their faces." An eight-week program does not necessarily fix that, he said, but often, significant changes are noticeable within weeks.

"It's amazing to watch people come here, and after a couple weeks, realize we're not asking for anything in return except that they see the value in themselves," Mr. Lamont said. "It's not about just the skills it takes to work in a kitchen, it's about life skills. It's about how to really begin to live as a person, as a human being.

"Don't get me wrong: We're not guardian angels, we don't wave magic wands. We just help people to empower themselves."