Cooking With Heart: Mike’s Story

Self, Addictions , Homelessness , Identity , Stories

Contributed by: Union Gospel Mission

Mike first arrived in Vancouver weary, with only $9 to his name. After finding shelter in a newspaper dumpster, he asked other people on the streets where he could get a good meal. “Union Gospel Mission,” they said. Mike didn’t know it yet, but that’s where his miracle would begin.

 Mike was only 8 when his family uprooted their lives in Cleveland to move to Montreal. “Just after moving to a new country, my parents decided they were breaking up,” he remembers. “It felt like my life was completely dissolving.” Heartbroken, he started drinking alcohol to mask his grief. “The first time I got drunk was euphoric,” he shares. “It seemed to be a replacement for the emotional vacuum I felt.” He started growing fiercely independent, passing his teenage years by skipping school, drinking with strangers, and partying wildly.

By his 20’s, Mike had the beginnings of fractured relationships, job losses, and alcoholism. That’s when he set off to travel the world, hoping to leave his spiralling life behind. “Travelling was about finding a place where I could be normal. But each time I tried making a break to somewhere new, it’d take me deeper into self-destruction,” he says. Mike’s adventures started with hitchhiking, but led to breaking bones, being robbed, getting lost at sea, and losing friends to murder. “I was making worse and worse decisions, living an empty life.”

Within a decade, he’d moved from Montreal to Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Australia, Hawaii, San Francisco, then back to Cleveland—in constant search of a stable, healthy version of himself. However, wherever he went, his addiction and its destructive cycles seemed to follow. “There was no stability, but somehow I could always land on my feet, pick up, and get going again,” he explains. “I’d always find work cooking, so once I’d built up enough resources to leave, I’d go out into the world again to try and find myself.”

When Mike eventually headed toward Vancouver, he thought, “This is going to be my new story. Vancouver is going to cure me.” However, when he got here, he kickstarted the same old cycle by spending his last $9 on beer and a bottle of wine. With nowhere to go, he found a newspaper dumpster to sleep in. He stayed there for two weeks, until social housing became available.

Broke, hungry, and in search of food, Mike heard about UGM. “I’ll never forget my first meal here. I’d been to soup kitchens in the States, but never seen anything like this before,” he explains. “It was a hot, hamburger patty with gravy and mashed potatoes. It was fantastic.” But what really impressed him was the welcoming atmosphere, and loving care of UGM’s staff. “That had a big impact on me; it later made the difference between me looking into recovery at UGM or moving on.”

He spent the next two years struggling to rebuild his life. While Mike could always find work, he could hardly pay off his monthly rent. “Any time I’d get paid, I was spending all my money on alcohol,” he recalls. “So ironically, even though I was cooking at a restaurant downtown, I was now relying on UGM to eat.”

 Mike reached a point of crisis after losing another job because of his drinking. Tired of barely scraping by in Vancouver, Mike made a plan to pack up, and start fresh—yet again. “I thought, ‘I’ll live in Stanley Park and bike to UGM every day for meals. When the weather gets bad, I’ll head to California. It’ll be a journey to get my life back,’” he remembers.

He started putting his plan into motion, and just a few days later, biked to UGM for lunch. After enjoying his meal, Mike walked outside to discover his bike wheel had been stolen. “My whole plan was collapsing. With no way of getting back and forth, I was losing any kind of hope I had,” he shares. “There are times in an addict’s life where they think that if they drink or use enough, then they’ll just die. That was about to be my moment.”

 Thankfully, his miracle was just beginning. Looking up, Mike saw a familiar face sticking out of the window and yelled to him, “Is there any room in this place?” He shouted down, “Yeah, you can get in! Just talk to a counsellor!” Mike couldn’t believe it—surely there had to be at least a 2-week waiting list! But God had other plans, and Mike was accepted into UGM’s Alcohol & Drug Recovery Program that day.

 After sitting with some of the other guys in recovery over meals, Mike started growing hopeful again. “Their stories really encouraged me,” he shares. “If these tough guys could come in and change their lives, maybe so could I.” Knowing this, he embraced humility for the first time in his life. “Discarding my pride and accepting that I needed help saved me. I had grown up being so tough, but that wasn’t going to help me this time.”

 Mike also brought this humility into daily Bible studies. He went into each class thinking, “I’m going to listen and learn. I’m not going to judge.” That opened him up to receiving God’s personal love for him, redeeming his sense of purpose and identity. “On the street, I knew the presence of God was protecting me. But at UGM, I met Jesus Christ.”

He especially felt God’s love through the people at UGM. This fostered a sense of family, which was foundational in restoring Mike’s life. “It was always easy to feel alone, even in a crowded room. But sharing those thoughts and feelings with others who’ve been there was wonderful and healing,” he explains. “It was an absolute change of heart. Hope becomes so much clearer, and more present when you’re in a community.”

By the time Mike graduated from recovery, he’d become so close with UGM’s Kitchen team that they offered him a job as a part-time line cook! “I was so happy UGM was willing to give me a chance, because nobody else would’ve,” he shares. “Being on the other side—preparing plates and working with the community—it kept me sober.”

 Today, Mike’s culinary talent, servant leadership, and heart for people has led to him overseeing the meal program at UGM’s New Westminster Resource Centre. Here, he gets to bring in all his experience—beautiful flavours from around the world—to make dignifying food for other people in need. “As a guest, I could tell the cooks had huge hearts by the way they went out of their way to make the food tasty and robust,” he shares. In the same way, Mike prepares and serves every meal with compassion—which is what welcomes each person into UGM’s community and leads to transformation.

This year marks the 23rd year of Mike’s own transformation—a journey that, when reflecting upon, brings tears to his eyes. “When I came in, I weighed 133 pounds, was wearing hiking boots with no socks, and had 37 cents and three cigarettes,” he remembers. “What UGM has given me, I can’t even begin to describe it. I have a meaningful career, I own a home, and I’ve been with my beautiful wife for 18 years. I have stability, health, and people to call family.”

 All those years ago, Mike made a plan to start his life afresh. Part of that plan is still intact: he’s upheld biking to UGM every day! But instead of coming to fill his own stomach, he now prepares dignifying meals, and feeds life-changing hope to the next person who sits down at UGM’s table—and that all begins with the kindness of people like you. “Thank you for your generosity. It’s not just saving lives, it’s rebuilding them,” he says, smiling. “If you ever want to come and see what UGM is all about, you’re welcome in my kitchen.”

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