At 55 years old, culinary student Gary Willoughby had never considered himself a graduate before. On Friday, at Boston’s Pine Street Inn, where he completed a job training program, that changed.
“I went to school and took a couple college courses, but I’ve never really had a graduation per se,” Willoughby told the Globe. “So this is really huge for me.”
Willoughby was one of 93 people struggling with housing insecurity who completed the nonprofit’s roughly three-month long workforce development program, which teaches people skills they can use to secure a job and transition out of homelessness.
Friday’s ceremony was full of excitement and joy as graduates dressed in black gowns and caps laughed, talked, and celebrated with one another. As they entered the tent outside the facility, friends, family, and even passersby erupted in cheers.
Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who was the honorary speaker, chatted with graduates and volunteers before the ceremony began.
She follows a tradition of prominent public speakers who have addressed Pine Street graduates, including former soccer player and sports commentator Charlie Davies, and former governors Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker, according to executive director Lyndia Downie.
Campbell, who experienced housing insecurity herself as a young child in the foster system, and who regularly visited multiple family members while they were incarcerated in state facilities, said she relates “to many of the struggles that the graduates have faced themselves around poverty or housing insecurity or issues connected to the criminal legal system.”
“I want to remind you that all the moments, every little thing that happened to you prior to today — the pain, the trauma, the suffering, maybe in moments of despair — all of that has brought you here today,” Campbell said in her address to the graduates. “All of it is a part of your story. There should be no shame in telling it and sharing it.”
Campbell also pledged a deeper partnership with the Pine Street Inn and other job training providers. She pointed to grant-writing tools and educational outreach efforts as potential avenues to get more directly involved with her office’s job protection and fair labor division, in addition to providing more treatment options for those who struggle with substance use disorder.
“The AG’s office is significant. Most folks know us as just an office that prosecutes crimes and we have a role to play in that and keeping our community safe,” Campbell said. “But we also do so much more than that, and we want to make sure we’re doing it in partnership with everyone in this space.”
The program offers curriculums in housekeeping, catering, and food services. For graduates such as John Lewis, the course has been instrumental in connecting them to resources and transforming their outlook on the future.
“I joined the program just to be around people, get away and clear my mind, but it’s working out good for me right now,” said Lewis, 60, whose focus in the program was housekeeping.
On June 1, Lewis finally secured housing and moved into a new one-room apartment on Beacon Hill. He is looking forward to living on his own again.
“After you finish the program, they try to help us find jobs and things,” Lewis said. “But it is up to us to hold onto the job and move on.”
Ayanna Warfield, a 28-year-old food service graduate, said she was glad to see the success of everyone graduating and to see their self-esteem grow from the job training program.
“I used to be in food services, and then I spent some time doing other things,” Warfield said. “So to come back after going through some personal things and restart learning about food services — I’m happy to be here.”
Daniel Johnson, a 54-year-old food services graduate, said before coming to Pine Street Inn, he felt lost and was struggling with homelessness and drug addiction. However, the job training program taught him numerous skills, including financial literacy.
“I have job opportunities everywhere flying at me,” Johnson said. “It’s an achievement I’ve been working to get, so I’m proud of myself and now I’m moving forward.”
For Willoughby, the culinary graduate, the opportunity to open his own restaurant one day is particularly exciting.
“You never know, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “After being in this program, I feel like I can conquer anything that comes in front of me. It sounds like a cliche, but I really think I can.”