In March 2013, Boston native Ronald Taylor left his foreclosed condominium with a backpack and nowhere to go. The 60-year-old college-educated accountant from American University was homeless, but if you ask him, he never lost his sense of direction.
“We’re hit with challenges every day; it’s only a matter of how you respond to them,” he said.
Two years later, he has responded in impressive fashion, donning another cap and gown Wednesday at Pine Street Inn’s job training graduation ceremony for the formerly homeless.Together, Taylor and 106 fellow graduates have completed the nonprofit’s intensive training in housekeeping, building maintenance, and food services.
Almost half the members of the graduating class have already gained full-time employment, said Lyndia Downie, the organization’s president and executive director.
“How many people here believe in superheroes?” Taylor, the graduation’s student speaker, asked the crowd. “I believe that if you’re in this room and wearing a cap and gown today, you are a superhero.”
Pine Street Inn has operated an emergency shelter and supportive housing for the homeless since 1969, but Downie says it began holding a formal graduation ceremony for job training graduates only in the past 10 years.
Some trainees, unlike Taylor, had not experienced the thrill of a college or high school graduation, and Downie wanted to provide the experience. She said it has been important for graduates of the training to receive a public acknowledgment for all their hard work.
“Now start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can,” Downie told the graduates, quoting tennis great Arthur Ashe. “None of you chose to be here, but you made the best of it.”
One graduate, 53-year-old Patricia Baker, said she’s excited to put her training into practice.
After losing her health care job in 2009 and exhausting her stay at area emergency shelters, the Boston woman came to Pine Street Inn at her wits’ end.
“I wanted to be back on my own,” she said. “I wanted to be out there.”
Baker is now back on the job market, thanks to her newly acquired food service skills and Pine Street Inn training certificate. She has not found employment yet, but she’s enrolled in classes at Bunker Hill Community College and believes things are looking up.
“I like this program because it works with you,” she said. “If you don’t have the clothes for an interview or if you need anything else . . . they’re happy to help you with your job search.”
Along with Taylor, Boston culinary giant and James Beard award nominee Joanne Chang also gave advice to graduates.
Chang, a frequent guest teacher and longstanding supporter of Pine Street’s food service program, said many of the lessons Baker learned in the kitchen can be applied to upcoming stages in her life.
In the food industry, everyone is responsible for not only their personal success, but the success of the entire kitchen.
This, she says, is also true in daily life.
“Never say that’s not my responsibility,” she said.
“Everything is your responsibility. Everything is your job. Everything is something you can influence.”
Still, in a ceremony packed with advice, the personal narrative of Ronald Taylor’s misfortune and resurgence was the unquestioned highlight, as evidenced by the whooping crowd. He is graduating from the building maintenance program.
“Life is not scripted,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen to you.”
Taylor told the crowd that homelessness was his greatest challenge, and because he conquered that, he and his fellow graduates can do anything else, too.
After all, in March 2013, he was homeless and broken. And by March 2015, he had his own one-bedroom apartment to call home.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon