“You don’t need to edit this,” Madeline adds as we conclude our conversation. “I’m okay with who I am.”  A recent Foodservice Training graduate, she’s not shy about discussing the path that led her though our doors, a path that includes trauma, grief and addiction, but also compassion, strength, and the determination to leave a positive mark wherever she goes.

“I had no family. I still don’t have any family,” says Madeline.  After being abandoned at 14 by her adoptive mother, she was left to fend for herself. “Just to be blunt about it, pimps and prostitutes and drug dealers were the ones that raised me…Some guys introduced me and my friend to heroin. They literally shot the heroin into our arms, and I overdosed that first time.” A tactic used to push her into prostitution, this incident set the stage for years of struggles with addiction and brushes with the law.  “I don’t regret any of it,” she says. “That experience gave me compassion for other people.”

Looking for a new start at age 31, she moved from California to Chicago, where she met the man who would later become her husband. They both worked on their sobriety together, and after years of success, they acquired a business and bought a home in the suburbs. “Even though I wasn’t drinking or drugging at the time, I acquired a new addiction just buying stuff, because I never had,” says Madeline.

In 2012, Madeline’s husband passed away, and she eventually lost the business.  “My world got tossed all around,” she says. After falling back into substance abuse, she was desperate to get sober.  “Finally what I ended up doing was going into the hospital, and really saying ‘I’m not leaving until you find me somewhere to go where I can get help.’”  Madeline was referred to a live-in treatment center in Chicago, where a counselor told her about our Foodservice Training program. She was very interested in learning culinary skills, but afraid that her past would be an obstacle.  “I didn’t want to lie or hide anything or be judged, and I came here and found that this was an environment that allowed me to be who I am.”

In addition to gaining job skills and confidence, she rediscovered her gift for sharing her knowledge with others, and keeps in mind her goal of bringing healthy food options to areas that might not otherwise access it. In the African American community, we suffer a lot from diabetes, obesity, heart disease,” she says. “Most of it can be prevented, however, not everybody has access to the same type of food.”  Madeline advocates for the healing impact of healthy recipes, as well as the creative process behind them. “Every day is not peaches and cream, but I can vent through food. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Madeline expresses a great deal of gratitude toward the Chef Trainers at Inspiration Kitchens, for their patience and for helping her develop her skills, as well as her case managers, for their compassion and extended support.  She notes that transit assistance and a flexible schedule to accommodate meetings has been invaluable in her commitment to sobriety.  She also recognizes the impact that supporters like you have had on her life. “I want those individuals to know they make a difference. We may not see them face to face but they make a huge difference behind the scenes,” she says. “It’s afforded me a new normal.”

Through all of her obstacles, Madeline’s stayed motivated by helping other students find their confidence in the kitchen, and by maintaining a positive outlook on life.  “It’s never too late to learn,” she says. “Fear of failure is pretty normal for everyone, however failing forward is something you do when you’re learning from mistakes.” This attitude paid off when she began her job as a chef at a health food store, where she has been working for several months, and is excited about her future there.

Madeline is grateful for the continued support she’s been receiving from the staff at Inspiration Kitchens, including transportation assistance and moral support from a familiar and welcoming environment.  “Every time I go there, even though there’s a new class everyone welcomes me when I walk in the door,” she says, stressing that everyone who enters our doors has their own story and their own desire to leave a positive mark. “We’re not suffering from a moral deficiency…We’re individuals who are sometimes forced into poor decision making process or was led into a poor decision making process and we’ve had consequences as a result, and sometimes we can’t find our way out. This is the light at the end of the tunnel, for a lot of people,” she says. “When I was young I couldn’t even fill out an application.” She adds, “I came here to learn about food but I learned so much more about the world