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'This program really saved my life' | Local program helps Knoxville teenagers, young adults find career paths

KnoxWorx helps teenagers and young adults find jobs in fields like construction, health care, welding and the culinary industry.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There is no shortage of restaurants and cafés in Knoxville. More than a dozen new businesses opened in the area over the summer.

But the UT Culinary Program director Chef Greg Eisele said chefs and cooks are becoming harder to find.

One program is helping young people find their career paths, including in the culinary industry.

"For us to be able to impact those lives like this and feed the industry, which is starving — cooks and the chefs are getting burnt and overworked and that kind of thing; it's the right thing to do," Eisele said.

KnoxWorx is part of the Knoxville Leadership Foundation. According to the nonprofit's website, more young people in Knoxville feel disconnected than in most other cities around the country. The website defines a disconnected young person as someone who is unemployed and not in school.

KnoxWorx helps teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 find work in fields like construction, health care, welding and the culinary industry.

One teenager said the program changed his life.

In the hustle and bustle of the UT Culinary Institute's commercial kitchen, 17-year-old Jalen Bingham found his peace.

"I'm pretty surprised," Bingham said. "I thought cooking was a lot of patience and stuff, and I don't have a lot of patience."

A lot of patience may not be needed, but teamwork in the kitchen is. "I think teamwork is probably the most important thing I've learned," Bingham added.

The team of teenagers and young adults is led by Eisele, who began his career as a 15-year-old busboy.

"I've been in the culinary industry for, goodness, 43 years," he said. "This is what we should be doing: impacting young lives, helping the chefs in the industry."

Through helping underserved teenagers, Eisele said the impact of the program extends beyond the kitchen. "I've had some kids with a lot of trouble. I don't know if I really turned them or not, but I hope so," he added. "These kids have so many roadblocks with whatever it is in their young lives, if we can eliminate those roadblocks, whatever they are, their potential  — we just don't know."

Following mental health struggles, Bingham left high school in the spring. "If it weren't for this program, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'd probably just be still in school, not happy with anything," he explained. "This program really saved my life."

This summer, Bingham found a new purpose. In the chaos of a working kitchen, the teenager found his peace of mind.

"I finally have something to wake up and look forward to, and I feel like I'm actually working toward something," Bingham added.

The culinary students will host a food truck outside the UT Conference Center from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday.


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