Veteran Training Program Hopes to Give Fresh Start

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By: Sarah Smith
USF Sarasota-Manatee
Class of 2016

To University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee student chef Bryan Jacobs; it’s not just about making food, it’s about changing lives.

“My job in the military as a Navy Corpman was to take care of my Marines,” said Jacobs. “And that will never change.”

After two tours in Iraq as a combat medic with the 2nd Light Armored Recon Battalion, he was honorably discharged in 2005 with little idea of what awaited him in his next phase of life. During this time, Jacobs suffered from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcoholism and homelessness, while cycling through 16 different jobs in an attempt to get back on his feet.

In 2012, Jacobs enrolled in USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Hospitality Management program with the hope of building on his knowledge of the business side of hospitality. During his studies, he met professor and Chef Joe Askren at USFSM’s Culinary Innovation Lab who immediately recognized Jacobs’ untapped artistic and visual skills.

This is where Jacobs found his purpose. After his younger brother Kevin tragically passed away in May of 2014, Jacobs’ grief was coupled with a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of veterans. Kevin, a 31 year-old Marine, served multiple tours in Iraq, and also struggled with PTSD, alcoholism and readjusting to civilian life.

“The concept of Vets-2-Chefs was developed before my brother passed because we both struggled so hard to reintegrate back to civilian life,” said Jacobs. “I wanted to help people overcome the challenge and Kevin taking his life really solidified my direction. He had always told me to help someone else – that I couldn’t help him.”

With the sadness of losing his brother and best friend hovering over him, Jacobs’s was inspired to guide and support those who have trouble coping with the return home from their service to their country.

“On average, 22 veterans a day take their lives,” said Jacobs. “Twenty-two veterans made that decision yesterday, and 22 more will make that decision today.”

Jacobs wants to stop the statistic there.

With help from the Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the Suncoast, Inc.’s Operation Military Assistance Program (JFCS’s OMAP), USFSM’s Culinary Innovation Lab and local philanthropist and former Marine Burton “Skip” Sack, Jacobs began a training program to help veterans find a place and purpose after their service.

“My major goal is not to create chefs but to create passion, direction, inspiration and that light at the end of the tunnel that so many can’t see. I want to provide a skillset to these veterans,” said Jacobs.

And the Vets-2-Chefs program is accomplishing just that.

It began with a trial run last summer when Chef Jacobs provided five veterans with a five-day “boot camp” in sanitation and culinary technique. The Vets-2-Chefs program continued over the next two months where they met weekly to hone their skills and listen to others’ inspirational stories. Since its start, Jacobs trained three separate groups of veterans selected for their interest in culinary arts through the JFCS’ OMAP.

Jacobs believes that anyone who has served in the military has the ability to be trained and educated at a faster rate than most because certain skillsets have been engrained in them.

“The ability to be leaders, role models, organizers, strategic planners – all these skills exists.” Jacobs’ goal is to focus these abilities on a passion for the culinary field.

Since the trial run, all five veterans from the first group have sought further education and employment in the culinary arts. “One has moved from waiting tables to working in the kitchen. Another is starting her first culinary experience as a junior chef,” said Jacobs. “They all found jobs in the culinary field thanks to great community support.”

“Starting a program for homeless veterans couldn’t have been placed in a better spot,” said Jacobs. “There are so many older veterans here who have been in their shoes and taken time to help make a difference. Without a strong community like Sarasota, this program wouldn’t be possible because the biggest part of success isn’t the man behind the idea, it’s the community that embraces the idea and helps carry it over the finish line.”

To learn more about ways to support Vets-2-Chefs, please contact Dennis Stover at 941-359-4582.