While Henderson admits the two-and-a-half hour commute each way is exhausting, she still wakes up every day with a smile because it’s more than a job; it’s an opportunity to fulfill her dream. (Photo courtesy of Philabundance)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Germantown resident Markeeta Henderson, 31, said before entering Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK), a free 14-week program that teaches culinary arts and life skills to low-income adults, she was “running around lost.”

“I was homeless,” she said. “I had to send my kids away because I couldn’t take care of them. I was on a downward spiral to nowhere.”

Thanks to PCK, Henderson is on the road to success. Every morning, she wakes up at 2:30 a.m. to take public transportation to her job at 5:30 a.m. as a line cook at Broad Table Tavern, 12 S. Chester Road in Swarthmore.

While she admits the two-and-a-half hour commute each way is exhausting, she still wakes up every day with a smile because it’s more than a job; it’s an opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming a chef and eventually reuniting with her children Destiny, 10, and Elijah Rucker, 12, who currently live with her ex-husband in South Carolina.

“This program has given me back my life,” she said. “I can’t explain it in words. It’s not just about

cooking. The Life Skills portion of the program forces you to examine yourself. You must have the strength to dig down within yourself to move past your issues and problems. PCK has allowed me to do things that were beyond my wildest dreams.”

Henderson said initially she didn’t think she would be able to complete the program because after just two weeks in the program, she was facing homelessness after being evicted. “Life was like ‘here you go, I am going to punch you one more time,’” she said.

Henderson’s sister Amanda Dobbs, 42, who also graduated from Philabundance Community Kitchen and now runs her own catering business, Virtuous Foods & Events, urged her to talk to Desiree Neal, Philabundance program and student coordinator.

“For once in my life, I decided to talk to somebody about what was going on,” she said. “And through some of Desiree’s personal contacts, I was able to get into the place I am now.”

Neal said providing students with emotional support is a vital part of the program “because unlike knife skills and recipe conversion, self-love and emotional wellness are not transferable skills that once assessed, remain intact. They change according to life circumstances and can affect one’s ability to make decisions. Having an advocate offers a different perspective and can provide hope to often hopeless situations.”

Shontae Graham, Philabundance Community Kitchen life-skills coach, said when Henderson began the program, she was “very dependent upon her older sister, Amanda.

“She also had trouble trusting others,” he said. “Throughout the program, Markeeta became much more self-sufficient, and opened up to PCK staff — allowing us to hold her accountable to progress. In the beginning, she would often try to explain why things were going a certain way. In the end, she learned to just get it done.”

Henderson said the culinary program is very strict. She said the class started with 17 students, but only eight graduated. “It forces you to take something seriously in your life and be accountable for your actions.”

Henderson said participation in PCK’s program, held in a women’s shelter in North Philadelphia, gave her a new sense of self-worth because the students in the culinary program cook meals for the women and children at the center. “It gave me a sense of validation knowing I was doing something positive and making a difference in other people’s lives,” she said. “Our class inspired several women in the shelter to sign up for Philabundance’s next set of classes.”

Before students graduate, they must complete a two-week internship at a restaurant or other business. Several local businesses have hosted students in the past including Paris Bistro, Earth Bread & Brewery and Green Soul in our part of town. A sous chef at Broad Table Tavern was so impressed with Henderson that he hired her on the third day of her internship.

Hugo Campos, Chef Instructor at Philabundance Community Kitchen, said Henderson is fearless when it comes to incorporating new ingredients into her cooking. He said while “solid skills and good work habits are common in this industry … Henderson’s ambition and drive make her stand out.”

Henderson wants to eventually start her own catering business, “Katy May’s,” in memory of her mom, who used to cook at Big George’s Stop-N-Dine, a famous soul food restaurant that used to be located at the corner of 52nd and Spruce Streets.

For more information, visit www.philabundance.org