At Thanksgiving, Lorraine Washington is grateful for never giving up during dark times.
Homeless as a teen. Shot in the face. Left for dead.
No job, no diploma, no home.
Eventually, Washington turned things around, leaning on divine help to get an education and career. Now she works as head chef at Dream Center in Peoria, the faith-based social-service agency, where she is thankful for the chance to serve more than just meals.
“I came here to cook, but I do other stuff,” said Washington, 50. “I minister to the ladies. I take ‘em to church. I just like people. I like to encourage people.
“Every day, it’s my goal to make somebody smile.”
Smiles came hard as a teen. In the November of her 17th year, a domestic situation exploded violently.
“I was shot in the face in 1989,” she said. “And they didn’t think I was going to make it. “
Even after recovery, her troubles continued. Over the next two decades, Washington lived on the streets off and on. Bad choices made for bad consequences.
“What I learned over the years is sometimes we’re our own worst enemy,” she said.
At rock bottom, Washington looked up and found a new priority.
“My main thing is, God can do anything,” she said. “He’s first. Everybody else is second.”
Her faith formed a foundation for a new and solid path
“I got my act together,” she said. “I went back to school. I got my GED. I went to college.”
She studied cooking, embarking on a new career as a chef. Last November, she brought those skills to Dream Center Peoria, the not-for-profit that aims to lift people out of poverty.
Dream Center runs a homeless shelter and housing services, along with programs teaching job and life skills. Caseworkers help newcomers, but some of the best encouragement comes from Washington, who has walked more than a mile in their shoes.
“I’ve been in a homeless position. So, I know what it’s like,” she said. “I basically give them hope: Just stay focused; you can get a job.”
But she doesn’t sugarcoat the process.
“You have to work for it,” Washington said. “It’s not going to be handed to you, that’s for sure. Nobody’s gonna give you anything.”
Washington’s straight talk effuses infectious encouragement, said Andy King, the executive director of Dream Center.
“The great thing about Lorraine is even if it’s a bad day, she can lift the spirits of the Dream Center,” he said.
He keenly appreciates the difference-making contributions made by Washington.
“We’ve always said at the Dream Center, we don’t want it to be a job. We want it to be a calling. They’re called to do this,” King said. “And Lorraine is one of those individuals. She lives and breathes to help people.”
This Thanksgiving means a lot to Washington. She appreciates her yearlong stint as Dream Center chef and motivator. And she also is grateful to graduate this month with an online bachelor’s degree in culinary arts instruction.
Meantime, she’ll be busy working on the big Thanksgiving meal at Dream Center. Last year’s celebration allowed Washington – who has five adult children and 27 grandchildren – a new viewpoint.
“I think that last year changed my outlook on Thanksgiving,” she said. “Basically, before I started here, Thanksgiving was all about my family, what I’m gonna cook for my family, and how me and my family are gonna get together and celebrate the holidays.
“But last year I got to do it differently. I got to spend time with other people that I didn’t know.”
She cooked 13 turkeys, 15 hams and 10 pans of side dishes, enough for more than 200 people.
“Just the smile on their faces made a difference,” she said.
She is looking forward to this year, especially because Washington has invited family to join the Dream Center gathering. In preparing that bounty, she remains mindful of the hardships of yesteryear, especially the violence from 33 Novembers ago.
“Every year I celebrate, because I’m not supposed to be here,” she said. “God gave me grace and mercy and favor to be here. So, I’m thankful for my life.”