Starting over at St. Anthony’s, One Day at a Time
July is National Culinary Arts Month, recognizing professional cooks and chefs who sustain and delight communities through innovative recipes and meals. This month, St. Anthony Foundation is thrilled to spotlight the incredible individuals and their work behind the scenes at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, a staple of the Tenderloin neighborhood for over 70 years
July 31, 2023
The sun is just starting to rise over the streets of San Francisco, but Juan is already at work. He is chopping vegetables and helps the prep chefs move pallets out of the freezer at St. Anthony’s Dining Room. Soon, he’ll be overseeing the line of hundreds of hungry men, women and children and making sure everyone’s tray is full. At closing time, he’ll mop the floors, wipe down the tables and scrape the pots and pans. And he’ll do it again tomorrow, with serenity and a smile on his face.
Juan’s been employed at the Dining Room for only a couple of months, but colleagues are already calling him a superstar for his diligence. “Send me more guys like Juan!” they say. In addition to working at the Dining Room, Juan is also busy working on his sobriety. He is a resident of the free men’s addiction recovery program, Father Alfred Center at St. Anthony Foundation. When not doing kitchen shifts, he is going to group meetings, talking to his counselor, going through the 12-Step Program and attending job training.
“After six months [at Father Alfred Center], I got blessed with a job in the kitchen department,” says Juan. “I love it and the support here. I’ve never had a place to call my own.”
His immediate goal is to reach one year of sobriety and to graduate from his recovery program, recognizing that the first year is the most challenging one. But he’s dreaming big, too. “I want to continue working here for the Foundation and I know I can move up,” he says.
Juan wasn’t always this optimistic. Born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, he fell into addiction at the young age of 17. He tried to quit on his own, but he discovered addiction isn’t something one can beat alone.
“I saw myself heading back again,” says Juan. “I was living on the streets. I was homeless. I thought: I have to do something.”
Juan still remembers that early morning in October after a week-long run of drinking and substance use. He was sitting on the sidewalk, broken and destitute. That’s when Juan saw an old friend walk by. He called out his name.
‘What are you doing here?’ the friend asked, surprised.
“It is what it is. I’m using again,” Juan admitted.
“How can I help? You need a few dollars to eat?”
“I work in the Dining Room at St. Anthony’s. Why don’t you go get some breakfast?” the friend offered.
“Are you serious about getting clean? I’m in a program right now. It’s called the Father Alfred Center.”
This was Juan’s God shot moment. He followed his friend and got a hot breakfast. Meanwhile, the friend and a staff member were checking on him and making phone calls.
After breakfast, Juan was given clean clothes and a place to shower at St. Anthony’s free Hygiene Hub, He was eventually admitted into the Father Alfred Center.
“I was welcomed with open arms and smiles,” Juan remembers. “I am a big believer. I needed some help. I was sitting and I was praying and sure enough. Is it a coincidence? No, it’s not.”
The service network at St. Anthony’s is helping people like Juan overcome challenges and start anew. “One of the biggest things for me is voicing myself,” explains Juan. “I’m not one to speak. I’m very uncomfortable. ‘Thoughts and feelings,’ my counselor always says. It’s not easy. But you build a community, you build that support. It’s kind of what I was looking for.”
Many people working alongside Juan in the Dining Room are in recovery, too, both early and long-term. In fact, almost a third of St. Anthony Foundation’s staff were at one point guests of its addiction recovery program or received clothing donations, job training, food, medical care or computer access and classes here.
Juan and his peers also attend St. Anthony’s job training. They meet in a classroom decorated with sailboat models—a metaphor for navigating life’s challenges. Inspirational statements adorn the ocean blue walls: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship,” reads a quote by author Louisa May Alcott.
There, Career Planner Joe Klocek teaches them emotional intelligence, job skills and integrating the principles of sobriety into day-to-day life.
Joe, who is five years sober, is also a former guest of Father Alfred Center (read his inspiring story here). Like Juan, Joe once worked in the Dining Room. “I was working as a dishwasher. It was humbling,” remembers Joe, a stand-up comedian who had performed internationally and opened up for Dave Chapelle before coming to St. Anthony’s to confront his addiction.
Joe credits the Father Alfred Center community and his former Dining Room manager for changing the course of his life. “He helped me rediscover my work ethic. It felt really good to walk in first thing in the morning and have a manager go, ‘Hey, I’m glad to see you!’ It had been years since somebody was happy to see me.”
Now, Joe helps other men in recovery. He uses his comedy background to make an impact, in addition to performing at San Francisco’s premier comedy clubs.
“Anyone can get a job. But how do you keep a job? That’s the skills we’re trying to teach. A lot of our guys are just like me. We didn’t necessarily have a great experience at school. Sitting in a classroom doesn’t make you go, ‘Oh wow, this is gonna be real fun.’ One of the things I’m able to do is make it fun. When somebody’s laughing, they let their guard down. And you can sneak in an idea they haven’t considered before.”Joe Klocek, Career Planner
He’s proud of Juan’s progress. “He’s taking it seriously and applying the values that he’s rediscovered,” Joe says. “For me, that is incredibly gratifying to see.”