36: Restaurant Epiphany

36: Restaurant Epiphany

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Restaurant Epiphany

You may not have saved a lot of money in your life, but if you have saved a lot of heartaches for other folks, you are a pretty rich man.

~Seth Parker

I didn’t appreciate the joy of volunteering until after I completed a successful twenty-year stint as a college teacher and ventured into a sales and consulting career for four years. Then, at age forty-six, I returned to teaching and experienced an epiphany that forever changed my priorities and perspectives.

As a newly hired marketing instructor at California State University, I was asked if I would volunteer my services to an enterprise called Eden Express — a restaurant unlike any other restaurant in America. What made the eighty-two-seat, out-of-the-way eatery unusual was its status as a not-for-profit restaurant training program that provided on-the-job training to developmentally-disabled adults. Trainees’ disabilities included schizophrenia, manic depression, brain injury, deafness, autism, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. Eden’s paid and volunteer staff offered concrete, experiential training with built-in rewards. During its nine-year history, Eden helped many of its 750 disabled clients learn how to work independently in the foodservice industry.

One sunny day in May 1984, I reported to the executive director, a remarkable leader named Barbara Lawson whose daughter Lori was so severely disabled that she could not qualify to participate in the training program.

Barbara put me to work immediately, asking me to promote the restaurant and help raise urgently needed funds. During the next five years I helped create ads, flyers, letters, training manuals, and other hardcopy materials, offered marketing workshops for five cities seeking to emulate the successful Eden Express program, and served on the Eden Express Board of Directors and as president of the Eden Institute of Education.

During those extraordinary years, I discovered a “new me” — learning what “normal” really means (or what Eden clients perceived as “normal”), learning how important it is to be patient with people who are “different,” and discovering that, if you give, you get.

I learned that by making a real commitment to help others (who had given up on themselves), I could help them rebuild their lives to become positive, participating members of the community. And I learned it was a “no-no” to coddle clients who had fallen through the cracks — just wanting to be “normal.”

During my five years as marketing director and occasional stand-in counselor for Eden Express, I became part of a nationally acclaimed vocational rehabilitation program that helped rescue many developmentally disabled adults from a life of hopelessness.

None of my other, succeeding volunteer activities ever quite rivaled the Eden Express adventure. But, importantly, I’d been bitten by the volunteer “bug,” subsequently serving as a volunteer for food banks, animal shelters, senior centers, the Private Industry Council of Contra Costa County (CA), and director of a college community outreach program. I served as a board member or officer of four nonprofit corporations and earned some personal accolades along the way.

But it’s Eden Express that remains most memorable. I’ll never forget the Eden Express venture. I’ll remember clients like Gina, brain-damaged from birth and functionally retarded, who told me that being “normal” was working eight hours a day, living on her own, taking care of her cats, and doing things that made her happy — not a bad definition of “normal.”

I’ll remember Paul, a UC Berkeley honor student who suffered a severe mental breakdown in his senior year and took to the streets until Eden Express came to his rescue. Paul advised me that without Eden Express he might have successfully committed suicide (after one previous unsuccessful attempt). He said the Eden Express staff helped him focus, find some real purpose, and discover a path to independence and productivity. When Paul completed the four-month program at the restaurant, I coached him for his job search and actually walked him to his first interview. Positive and determined, Paul landed a good steady job at a nearby Burger King, remaining at the job for several years. To this day, I’m convinced that Paul’s accomplishments had more to do with his pride than his paychecks.

And how could I forget such a delightful client as Peter? One day, when I visited the restaurant to see if I could help out, the manager pressed me into service as a stand-in for a counselor who was ill. She asked me to check in on Peter, who was washing dishes in the kitchen. (At Eden, every new client started in the laundry room and kitchen, eventually advancing into bussing dishes, taking orders, serving, and cashiering.)

Peter was talking to the bubbles, as dishwashers at Eden often did. I asked him: “Who are you talking to?” “God,” he answered. Taking a stab at some real “counseling,” I replied, “Talk to the bubbles on break time, Peter. Right now, wash the dishes.” It worked. Peter smiled and continued to wash dishes. Eventually, Peter advanced to the top restaurant position — cashier.

My volunteer work with Eden Express helped me value and practice empathy and to always remember that old maxim, “Only the wearer knows how much the shoe pinches.” My Eden Express experience also made me, an experienced college teacher, less of a “sage on the stage” and more of a caring person, who now wears his heart on his sleeve. I’ll always value the “new me” launched by that little restaurant — from the first time I walked into it.

~Robert J. Brake

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