Chef Donald Ram's passions for food and teaching combine in his Job Corps service
Years ago, when Donald Ram got his first degree, he thought he would be happy confined to a somewhat isolated life of working with new technology. That was when his true calling started to come into focus.
“What started out as a hobby started to seem like just another job,” Ram said. “I decided to go back to school and get another business degree and this time around I met my first passion, teaching.”
Ram taught high school students for some time in Fiji, where he met his wife, Kelly, a Grand Rapids native traveling for missionary work. The two married and returned to Grand Rapids, where Ram was pleased to find another love.
“I was moving across the world and getting married, so I figured, what’s another big decision I can make in my life?” he asked himself. “That’s when I decided to pursue my second passion, cooking. And in moving to Grand Rapids, I discovered we had one of the best culinary schools in the country.”
Ram attended Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute of Culinary Education
, but lest his story continue to ease along like some dream vacation, it eventually presented him with a challenge.
“At that point going to college sounded tough as this professional culinary field was so foreign to me,” he said. “I had watched all the big name chefs and was just mesmerized with the mind boggling dishes they could prepare and how easy they made it look.”
After enrolling at SICE, Ram said, “my passion for cooking went to levels beyond what I could comprehend as I was working with world class chefs who were so down to earth.”
Ram’s competitive nature took him to the top of his class, and lent him the drive to learn as much as he could. But taste-tempting entrees aside, the biggest lesson Ram attributes to molding himself into what he has become today was humility. His last semester at SICE required him to intern at a professional kitchen. While Ram’s fellow trainee chefs were moving across the country and the globe for their final projects, Ram stayed in Grand Rapids to pursue a local internship.
“I decided to take my skills and do an internship at Mel Trotter Ministries
,” he said. “There I saw people from our local community—men and women from all ages—who were beaten by life through addictions and wanted a fighting chance. I wanted to give back to the community that gave me so much.”
Ram said he felt “right at home” at Mel Trotter Ministries and, although he soon graduated with honors and began to receive job offers from around the U.S., he felt his skills were most needed and useful in the mission he was working in. He continued with Mel Trotter for two years, taking on a supervisory role to interns from Grand Valley State University
and the Gerald R. Ford Job Corps
“I inquired with my interns about what GRFJC was about,” Ram said. “During the internships, the GRFJC students struggled a lot in my kitchen as they had gone through a lot of different chefs in a short period of time but once these same students went through my kitchen they seemed to have learned a lot more in six weeks then in one year in the program.”
Ram said he saw a need for help in the GRFJC program, and was confident that Mel Trotter Ministries had by then built a strong kitchen staff that could flourish without him.
“Moving to GRFJC in 2010, I finally had a chance to combine my two biggest passions—cooking and teaching,” Ram said.
The GRFJC prides itself on taking in and mentoring students from ages 16-24 that, for whatever reason, cannot or function as well in a traditional high school setting.
“They either have not been to school in a long time, dropped out of school for various reasons or have had trouble with the law and we provide them with formal education as well as life skills,” Ram said.
The GRFJC provides career training in Carpentry
, Culinary Arts
, Facilities Maintenance
, Medical Office Support, Nursing Assistance
, Office Administration
, and Security
, as well as academic courses, including basic reading and math.
“Not only do they get their high school diploma or GED, they get certification in first aid and their trade,” said former GRFJC Community Liaison Johannah Jelks. “A lot of the students have never had a job before, even the most basic one which a lot of us take for granted.”
The only prerequisite for students in the Job Corps, Ram said, are passion and initiative.
“When the student enters my class, I treat them as employees,” Ram said. “You have passion if food is the first thing you think off when you wake up and the last thing you think off when you sleep. And students show initiative where, even if all tasks are completed, they keep themselves on task as expected in the kitchen. In other words, if they have time to lean they can clean.”
GRFJC culinary student Tyson McNeely, 22, came from a food-centered background and now works under Chef Ram.
“I started my journey into culinary arts at the age of 15, helping my grandmother’s catering business, A Taste of the South, in Lansing,” McNeely said. “My main task was to do the heavy lifting and setting up the events. My grandmother Lois McNeely would handle the cooking portion. Her food always looked and smelled great with flavors that tasted like the love that she put into it.”
McNeely enrolled in the GRFJC to better his understanding of culinary arts, with the hope of growing a career.
“The more knowledge and experience you have, the better service and product you can produce,” McNeely said.
Life as a GRFJC student was a bit different than what McNeely was used to, he admits, but being treated as an employee and peer honed his determination to succeed.
“I focused on my passion and put my faith on my future,” he said.
He learned the basics of mother sauces, using knives, kitchen safety and more from Chef Ram, and still enjoys being “pushed to the highest limits.”
“Chef Ram is always taking pride in his teachings as much as the students under him, while expanding my mind with new things that I would have never had the opportunity to try, like shark, sea urchin, lamb, and alligator among other things,” McNeely said.
Now, McNeely is ServSafe
certified in managing, food handling, and as a proctor/instructor, as well as trained in CPR and First Aid
and certified under the Michigan State University Nutrition
“The Job Corps program has opened doors for me that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” McNeely said. “Now the future is looking brighter, and more importantly I can do what I love with more knowledge and care. My journey will continue at a local restaurant where the rest of my foundation can be built, to later on hold a college education by GRCC culinary arts program, never forgetting my passion to serve to the highest degree.”
Chef Ram said he is very proud of McNeely, as he is with all his students, who learn and grow at different job sites like San Chez
and Chez Olga
“Along with cooking I teach my students life lessons and along with that give them hope of pursuing a better life for themselves and their loved ones,” Ram said. “Now the culinary arts trade is the best trade for our students and they are getting employed by a lot of kitchens locally and around Michigan and Ohio.”
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Job Corps has come a long way from its beginning as a congressional act in 1964. The GRFJC Center is located on the former site of Grand Rapids South High School. This local center opened in 1982 as the Grand Rapids Job Corps Center, overseen by the Chicago Regional Office of Job Corps
and operated by MINACT, Inc.
. The center name was changed in 2004 to honor Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, who was also a graduate of Grand Rapids South High School.
Jelks said the GRFJC is a generator of social equity in the community, creating a foundation for students to build upon and better their environment. Currently the center has 212 students enrolled, 190 who live at the center.
“When you talk about social equity, you’re talking about students that are starting off at the bottom, who have never had basic training, and what we do is give them 100 percent,” she said. “By the time they leave our program, they have resumes and help with job placement.”
Recently, under the direction of Jeffrey Jablonski, the GRFJC Center has undergone major renovations to improve the male dormitory living space, academic and career technical training classrooms, administrative offices, recreation, and kitchen and cafeteria areas. All renovations incorporated sustainable and renewable energy features, such as green roofing technology, water conservation devices, high-efficiency Energy Star-rated equipment, and designs that efficiently use day lighting. Construction on the new facility was completed in September 2012.
For more information on the Gerald R. Ford Job Corps, visit http://geraldrford.jobcorps.gov/
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids.