"My name is Ricky, and I grew up here in San Diego. I have two brothers and one sister, and we grew up in a very different, unique atmosphere with our family. You know, being surrounded by alcohol, being surrounded by drugs and abuse - that situation was something that always haunted me and felt like it was just never gonna end."
But Ricky Barrero has put himself on another trajectory. He has just completed Project Launch, the tuition-free culinary apprenticeship program at Kitchens for Good, which comprises of 300 hours of instruction over three months and then 2400 hours of on-the-job training.
"[Kitchens for Good] takes people who, essentially, society has thrown away. They take us, and they change our lives by giving us another second chance in rebuilding ourselves," Barrero says.
The folks served by Kitchens for Good span the spectrum of those who face high unemployment: formerly incarcerated adults, foster youth transitioning out of the system, survivors of domestic violence, people with mental health disorders, and those who have histories of substance abuse.
Through the instruction portion of the program, Barrero says that Kitchens for Good provides the "opportunity to learn what real employment is like - life skills, culinary skills, professionalism, how to speak, how to present ourselves, how to believe in ourselves."
In addition to that, Chuck Samuelson, Founder and Board Member, reflects on the program's harder-to-quantify benefits that participants take with them:
"You become family. We're all hard-wired as humans to want the same thing: that connection, that belonging to a family, to be seen for who we are, to be ok with that, to love ourselves."
Samuelson also reflected on something Barrero had told him, "that he learned in this program how to love himself. I've learned through the students here, and through my own issues how to love myself, and I can tell you it doesn't come easy if you've come from some of the backgrounds we've come from. I think it's one of the best things we do here at Kitchens for Good."
After the three months of instruction, Kitchens for Good connects students with the best restaurants in the industry to complete the second part of their training. Barrero has been working at Bernardo Winery, a San Diego standby that's been around since 1889 and still pleases palates today. He speaks highly of his experience:
"It's just really amazing to be working with them and learning all of the things that they make there - pasta from scratch, making lasagna from scratch, wine that they make there as well... going from not working and going from the situation that I was [in] to right now, transitioning into this amazing job - and in such a magical place. For me, it's just been nothing but a blessing."
Once students have completed their instruction and on-the-job training, they have officially earned their Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship from the State of California Department of Industrial Relations - which is equivalent to a 2-year degree.
And while that certificate is something that can be held in their hands, the graduates come away with something else: the possibility of a career trajectory - of momentum and hopes and dreams. Barrero can now picture this, saying "I really can't wait to one day to be in charge and manage my own kitchen and lead a team, create food, invent food. That's just my biggest dream - to create things and make amazing food."
Kitchens for Good has supported many people in breaking the cycle of poverty, with a 90% employment rate among graduates. Thinking back to where he started, Barrero says, "I've made peace with everything, and I have put myself in a position where I can't even stop smiling."
Cam Buker is a freelance filmmaker/photographer who is interested in telling compelling human interest stories. You can find his current work at www.granitecollective.com and on Instagram @granitecollective