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Wake Tech's 'boot camp' cooking class transforming lives of homeless men

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A partnership between a homeless shelter and Wake Tech has changed the lives of numerous men.

On any given night, there are about 1,100 people trying to survive without a home in Wake County. Up until four months ago, you could count William Johnson among the county's homeless population.

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Tonight, he's sleeping in his own apartment and about to start a brand new job. We wanted to find out how he did it.

"I made a big shift, a change in my life," Johnson said from the facility he used to call home - Raleigh's South Wilmington Street Center - the men's-only homeless shelter where he arrived April 1 after hitting rock bottom.

"(I made the) wrong choices - drinking, drugging, in and out of jail." Johnson said.

"I remember the first few days he was here," recalled shelter manager Frank Lawrence. "(William) expressed he really wanted to change his life."

Giving much of the credit to his case worker at the center, this 44-year old high school dropout is now a fully-certified culinary line cook.

"I've never passed anything," Johnson said. "So it was very amazing. I'm still like, wow!"

Johnson is one of 10 homeless men who committed to a Wake Tech pilot program aimed at turning lives around quickly. It's a one-month, 60-hour course.

"It's a culinary boot camp," said Wake Tech's hospitality curriculum coordinator Sameer Pawa.

Pawa approved the program after the shelter reached out to the school looking for a program where students could exit immediately and get a job.

It worked.

"Eight out of 10 got employed; 80 percent employment," Pawa said.

To help the job-interview process, Wake Tech turned the session into a brunch put on by the new chefs.

"It could be where a student may not be good on an interview level, but we wanted the employers to look at the work, that was the interview ... see the food," Pawa said.

Johnson said he is accepting a job offer at the dining hall at NC State.

"I had to just make myself be patient enough to learn something," he said.

Encouraged by the success of the class, Wake Tech is expanding the program to two other shelters and transitional homes.

And in addition to his new job, Johnson just moved into his very own apartment last Thursday.

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