Culinary arts, comfort, and care
It’s no surprise that comfort and food go together. Every day, love and care are served fresh out of the kitchen at UGM’s Simonka Place in the form of vegetables, roast, or even fish tacos, some of Kitchen Supervisor Johnna Norton’s favorites to prepare.
Even though Johnna has been whipping up food professionally for years, her career has evolved and changed over the course of time. Once a chef at restaurants she couldn’t even afford to eat at, she’s now using her craft in a job brimming with meaning and purpose. This time, though, she can empathize with the patrons she serves.
Back in 2016, the rug was pulled out from under Johnna when her twin sister unexpectedly passed away. “I quit living,” she said. “Eventually, I lost my job, and I lost my house.”
Crushed by the weight of her grief, the unthinkable had happened to her. Having no support system from friends and family, Johnna was suddenly homeless. Numb, she roamed up and down I–5 until the cold weather rolled in, which forced her to snap into action.
“I thought ‘This is absolutely ridiculous, I’ve got to have help,’” Johnna said, who, like many, wanted to dig herself out of her struggle on her own initiative. Taking a step toward aid by seeking shelter at Simonka Place, she credits God for what happened next.
“I was stranded across town and I just asked a taxi driver; ‘I don’t have any money; would you mind taking me to Keizer?’” Without payment, the man agreed to Johnna’s request, and drove her to our shelter. She had no reason to necessarily believe he was a Christian, but the Spirit moved him to help a stranger.
Stability, Safety, and rest for the soul
Immediately after walking through our doors, she was enveloped by grace and love. In the safety of a warm shelter with a soft pillow to rest her head on, she slept blissfully that first night. As stability eased her defenses, Johnna was able to begin targeting the trauma that had catalyzed her homelessness. And it began with an earnest prayer to the Lord in the chapel on her knees.
“Right away, I could see Him at work in my life, in ways I never had,” said Johnna, tears gathering in her eyes. “It was just that full surrender he was waiting for.” Having continually fought for survival, there was little time for much more than cries for help. At Simonka Place, she found physical rest, yes, but also rest for her weary soul.
Within days, she enrolled in our recovery program, and began absorbing what she was learning from the classes and counseling. “Grief Share was instrumental in getting out of that grief,” Johnna said, referring to one of the classes that provided her tools to address trauma, trauma from her sister’s death, and homelessness, itself.
“It’s a full-time job being homeless, it really is, thinking about where I’m going to eat, where I’m going to sleep. Just getting what I need today is an all-day deal.” To add to that, there is frequently overwhelming fear and ongoing safety concerns for the homeless.
Coming full circle
But Johnna’s past prepared her for her present job, a position that was offered to her earlier this year. Combine that with her zest for cooking and her desire for kingdom-work, she has grown to appreciate the fruit of her struggle. A beautiful trifecta, she combines her culinary talents, meaningful service to others, and her past experiences to relate to those for whom she cooks.
“My work was the kind of work where I got all of my self-worth. It fed my ego,” said Johnna, referring to her previous jobs. “And now, I see that these are talents God gave me and helped me develop, certainly against my will, and he brought them full circle. I feel completely redeemed.”