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DECATUR – Bernard Sangster was looking for a new direction for his life when he got out of jail this summer.

So the offer he got while staying at the Salvation Army was too good to pass up, and that was to enroll in the shelter's Culinary Arts Program that started Aug. 31. Sangster said he knew his way around a barbecue grill but didn't know anything else about cooking.

Part-way through the eight-week class, he earned his food service sanitation manager certification and landed a job running the broiler at Cheddar's.

“You come in on the weekend and order a steak,” he said, a proud grin spreading across his face. “I'll be the one cooking it.”

Sangster, 50, was one of nine people who successfully completed the program last week.

Two previous eight-week sessions produced 13 graduates, 10 of whom were able to earn that all-important certification. Six did so this time around, and the remaining three plan to take the test again Nov. 18.

Two other graduates, in addition to Sangster, found jobs while taking the training.

“This was a phenomenal session for us,” said Jeff Mueller, the army's director of men's services. “We'll start the next one in February.”

A $25,000 ADM Cares grant provides the funding, and the teachers are Charlyn Fargo Ware and Rochelle Slater, both employees in dietitian services for Springfield's HyVee store.

Ware said the most recent students were the most committed class they've had so far, with only one dropping out because he moved away and attendance virtually perfect otherwise. “They were so eager to learn,” she said.

The vast majority of culinary arts students are residents of the homeless shelter, but Salvation Army staff are also allowed to take the class if they wish, and the occasional referral from another agency is also accepted.

The newest class, for example, included Heather Wallaert, 23, a client support specialist in the shelter, and Kelly Peterson, 33, who was referred by Heritage Behavioral Health Center.

Peterson said he also took a hospitality class through the Decatur School District's Adult Education Center and hopes to get a job soon as a restaurant cook.

“I'm interested in making recipes, not just heating up a burger and selling it to people,” he said.

The other students were current or former shelter residents Brian Batchellor, 40; Joshua Boles, 41; William Farrar, 49; Troy Ingram, 40; Edward McNamara, 44; and Joseph Sigler, 51.

For their last class, they worked together congenially in the kitchen of the Salvation Army's Community Hall preparing a plated dinner for themselves and their guests: stuffed chicken breasts, two-toned augratin potatoes, fresh asparagus, tossed salad, rolls and pumpkin spice cake.

“The class is about more than the food,” Mueller said. “Students also learn the social skills they'll need in the workplace.”

J.W. Wallace, 61, who attended the graduation dinner, said completing the army's Culinary Arts class earlier this year turned his life around after a DUI ended his career as a truck driver, his age made it difficult to find other work, and he lost everything.

Wallace said he first he landed a job cooking at the Handy Pantry and now manages the Downtown Convenience store at 117 N. Main St. in Decatur.

“I never had done restaurant work, but I'm a country boy and knew how to cook,” he said. “The program was a real blessing to me.”

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