Formerly homeless, Jerrie Olds gives back as chef at My Sister’s Place

Nov 24 2014 City Paper

Jerrie Olds sits at a vinyl-covered table for six in a large room full of other, empty, tables for six. Plastic marigolds sit in the center of each table, and a single fork, napkin, and cup lie in front of each chair. Every table looks the same. The kitchen is quiet, but it won’t be for long. Breakfast ended an hour ago, and lunch is coming up quickly. Olds and her intern planned the menu for this meal earlier in the week: pasta with collard greens and mixed vegetables. She’s added some extra balsamic vinegar, grapes, and spices since the last round, and the diners like it better now.

Even when she was a little girl, Olds knew she wanted to be a cook. She says she was about 6 years old when her mother and grandmother were baking a sweet-potato pie. While they weren’t looking, she added the butter and eggs and mixed it up. When they noticed what she’d done they were surprised. She explained to them that she knew what to do because she’d seen them making the pie many times before. She says they snatched the bowl from her and told her not to do that anymore, but she couldn’t help herself.

As the kitchen coordinator for My Sister’s Place Women’s Center downtown, Olds manages the plans and preparation for three hot meals a day, 365 days a year. The Women’s Center welcomes women and children in need during meal times, and also provides other services: housing assistance, education and life-skills training, case management, emergency financial assistance, and referrals to mental health and addiction services. But clients of My Sister’s Place will probably tell you that the food and showers are pretty high up on the list.

It’s hard to imagine this strong and outgoing woman on the receiving end of the soup kitchen line, but at one point in her life, she was.

“When the economy went bad in 2009, I had lost my job. I got laid off,” Olds says. She was able to stay at her home with her then-7-year-old daughter for three months rent-free, but beyond that, she had nowhere else to turn. She fought for unemployment benefits for four months before she won, but during that time she had no other income.

“I went to Social Services and they referred me to 211, which is the number you call for information about shelters and stuff like that,” she says. “My case manager also gave me a list of all the shelters in Baltimore City that take women and children, so the next day while I was at a doctor’s appointment, they allowed me to use their phone to call the shelters to see if me and my daughter could get a bed, and the next day Christ Lutheran said they had two beds. It took me about four days to get to the shelter after I lost my house.”

Once there, the shelter referred Olds to My Sister’s Place for budgeting classes, parenting classes, and other resources.

“Christ Lutheran offered a free culinary program called Essential Skills with Chef Crabtree. I joined the program which lasted 18 weeks,” she says. “We went every day Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. From there I found out that My Sister’s Place was hiring a part-time cook, which was two days a week. As soon as I graduated, I came up here and applied for the job.” She started working a month later.

“I applied for, I think it was like, 25 different programs that the state of Maryland had to insure that me and my daughter would get a place to live when my time at the shelter was over.”

Olds says that her daughter thought of the shelter they shared with 60 other women and 10 children like it was a hotel. “It was a big room and they had a lot of things for children to do and plenty of activities,” she recalls. “She went to camp, they taught her how to swim, arts and crafts . . . So it didn’t affect her like it affected me. She would say ‘it’s like we’re on vacation.’ And I would say ‘baby, we are not on vacation.’ But if that’s what got her through, I wasn’t gonna take that away from her.”

Olds often asked herself how long this could go on for before something changed. “First and foremost, I knew I’d never give up hope,” she says. “I had a child, and I still got her, and I know I had to survive in order for her to live.” Olds and her daughter stayed at the shelter for 11 months.

Although her new job at the kitchen was only two days a week, Olds knew that there would be opportunities to grow with the company. In her interview she explained that she was ultimately aiming to be the manager of the kitchen. It took her two-and-a-half years to work her way up to that position, which she’s now been at for nearly three years. For the last year she has offered three 12-week courses for those Catholic Charities clients who are interested in studying toward earning their ServSafe certificate.

Olds says that although she could work somewhere else, she wanted to work in this kitchen in particular. “Catholic Charities helped me, and I really wanted to give my time and my experience, feed the ladies, feed the homeless,” she says. “Because I’ve been out there. I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to be cold and hungry with nowhere to go. So it was my opportunity to give back.”

My Sister’s Place is unique in that you don’t stand in a line for your meal. You are seated at a table, and served: breakfast from 7:30-8:30 a.m., lunch from 12-1 p.m., and dinner at 5 p.m. Individuals and groups volunteer to help prepare meals, but there is always room for more help, especially during the work week when volunteers are scarce. All the food that goes into each meal has been donated, so Olds’ recipes are based on whatever food is available. About 250 meals are served every day. During Code Blue days, or extreme weather, My Sister’s Place becomes an overnight shelter, but in general it is a day shelter.   

“I see myself producing more culinary students, and having more success stories,” she says of the future. “I want to see my students complete the 12-week course, graduating, taking the test, scoring 100, going out, looking for a job . . . finding a job, and working in a commercial kitchen, being in their own place, being a productive citizen in society. I want to keep producing success stories. This is my goal right now.”

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