Kitchen School grad defies challenges: goals drive passion to succeed

October 30, 2023

To say Janelle West enjoys and appreciates her job as a prep cook at The Clubhouse at Baywood is an understatement. “I just love it here.” was her greeting.

West is a July graduate of The Kitchen School at the Food Bank of Delaware, a member of the inaugural class at the Milford facility. The Kitchen School is a 12-week culinary training program designed for adults with disabilities.

This Seaford resident and mom of three is aware that she doesn’t look disabled, noting that she’s all too familiar with that comment. “You just can’t judge. I’m disabled,” she said.

“But I’m so happy to be here,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been able to work in 11 years . . . 11 years. My bosses and the chefs are good here, and everyone is so nice. And the work here, everything is bearable for me. I can do it.”

During an interview at her workplace, West pulls aside the neckline of her work t-shirt, pointing to the port surgically implanted in her upper right chest; it’s been placed as the intravenous entry for TPN – or Total Parenteral Nutrition – providing nutrition and hydration. She requires weekly care at home from visiting nurses. “At night, I’m hooked up to a machine for 12 hours,” she added. “My nurses are proud of me.”

Now 36 years old, at age 26 West developed  life-threatening condition that required three back-to-back surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. where she spent 13 days. Her small bowel was removed, and she continues to live with small bowel syndrome; in fact, she was recently hospitalized nearly two weeks with related complications. “I was near death. I’m blessed to be alive. Don’t say I’m lucky; I don’t like that word. I’m blessed,” she said.

While doctors told her that she wouldn’t be able to walk again or work or resume a normal life, she’s proven them wrong. “This is my story. This is why I love to cook; I wasn’t able to eat. I would take three little bites of a meatball and be full. Food is my passion. “

Although she’s medically restricted to a 21-hour work week, she’s in the kitchen for six hours a day, three days a week. “Janelle is always eager to learn and I’ve been lucky enough to watch her take the skills she’s learned at the Food Bank and apply them to her position at Baywood. We’re lucky to have her on our team,” said Executive Chef Brendan Tharp.

It’s mutual respect and admiration. “I love it here working with everybody. We all get along, and we all work hard. We stay busy,” West said. She also praised the Food Bank’s Kitchen School staff, noting they provide on-going support and connection.

Her Kitchen School training, in fact, was the first step. “I’m starting school to become a nutritionist. She’s enrolled in Sussex Tech’s Adult Education program, completing placement testing. “Back then, I was dealing with depression, and now I want to reach my goals. This is a major accomplishment for me. Some people would have given up, but I know everything that’s happened to me was building me to be where I want to be.”

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