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Students harvest new opportunities at Peace Meal Café

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

LaToya Williams (left) and her sister, Samantha Williams, cook for dozens of students at Petersburg Urban Ministries in Petersburg, Va.
April 19, 2006

By John Gordon*

PETERSBURG, Va. (UMNS) — Like many inner-city youth where she grew up, Latoya Williams never finished high school.

“I was one of those young ladies that stayed in quarrels with other people,” she said. “So I was put out of school.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to earn her GED, Williams, now 28, found a life-changing experience. She is learning cooking and restaurant management at the Peace Meal Café, part of a food-services course at Petersburg Urban Ministries.

The ministry is a mission site of the United Methodist Church.

“I really love and enjoy the staff here,” Williams said. “And I love what they have done for us.”

Williams earned her GED after enrolling in Petersburg Urban Ministries’ Youth Build program. Students attend classes and work toward their high-school equivalency degrees. They also are paid to renovate homes for low-income families.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Latoya Williams buys groceries for the Peace Meal program. Students learn menu preparation and budgeting as part of the food-services course.

Williams is one of the first four students in the Petersburg ministry’s food-services course. The students cook breakfast for the Youth Build students four days a week in a makeshift kitchen located in a former warehouse.

The Peace Meal students attend courses approved by the National Restaurant Association and are available for outside catering. They learn about planning meals, sticking to a budget and handling customer service complaints in restaurants.

“I used to be a microwaver,” Williams said. “And my grandmom and mother, my aunts, are all chefs. So it feels good to learn what they know and to let them know that I’m learning it now.”

Working alongside Williams in the Peace Meal kitchen is her sister, Samantha Williams, who also received her GED with the help of Petersburg Urban Ministries.

“When I was in high school, I don’t think I was focused enough because, you know, you hook up with that crowd,” Samantha Williams said.

She said the program will give her job skills and opportunities.

“This program is needed everywhere,” she said. “I believe if they had these programs everywhere, there’d be a lot of kids alive today, young kids, teenagers.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Karen Johnson teaches students about food preparation and restaurant management.

Dante Clanton, 23, considered the programs at Petersburg Urban Ministries his “last hope.” Clanton has since earned his GED and is taking college computer courses while enrolled in the food-services course.

“My attitude changed,” Clanton said. “I decided to go to college; I do my work, stay out of trouble.”

Teacher Karen Johnson said the one-on-one relationship with students helps the program succeed. She said many of those coming to Petersburg Urban Ministries have faced such difficult circumstances as broken homes, drug use or domestic violence.

“Life has not been particularly easy for them,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that I could have survived their circumstances and done as well.”

The food-services course is designed to prepare students for jobs in restaurants or hotels, or give them the skills they need to start their own businesses.

“They may not choose to make food service their life career, but it’s a stepping stone,” she said.

Dwala Ferrell, director of Petersburg Urban Ministries, said she hopes some of the students will pursue college degrees in the hospitality industry.

“It’s exciting to see them move beyond getting a GED and beginning to make plans for their lives,” she said, “and learning skills that they can carry with them and receiving validation and hope.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

The Peace Meal Café, which serves meals to students at Petersburg Urban Ministries, operates from a makeshift kitchen in a former warehouse.

Ferrell said the first funding for the food-services program came from the Youth Service Fund of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship. The fund is administered by the board’s Division on Ministries with Young People.

Renovation is under way of a former retail store that will become the new home for the urban ministry. Future plans include possibly opening a public restaurant that would be run by the students.

“It’s exciting,” Ferrell said. “There’s nothing better than seeing somebody who used to stand on the corner all day long in here, changing.”

Latoya Williams is already setting goals: starting a family business and expanding it into a restaurant chain.

“There’s no doubt,” she said. “Once I finish the food service course and get the certificate, there’s no stopping me from there.”

More information on the program is available at

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert or Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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