- August 25, 2016
DR. PHILLIPS A year ago, Rodney Harris and Patrick Dickinson were fighting hunger. Now, as employees at Olive Garden on Sand Lake Road, they’re not only feeding guests — they are also feeding themselves.
Harris and Dickinson both were homeless. Harris spent his time in the streets sleeping on benches and going in and out of shelters, not knowing what his next step was. Dickinson was living in a shelter, taking a two-hour bus ride to a temporary services office near Olive Garden every day.
When the two walked into the restaurant looking for jobs, neither had anticipated how his life was about to take a turn for the better.
ON THE STREETS
According to United Way, 45% of all households in Florida have trouble affording basic necessities such as housing. Just more than one million households are living below the poverty line, and an additional two million are struggling financially.
In fact, the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida agency — which spans Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties — conducted its annual local homeless census in January and counted 1,228 homeless people in Orange County alone. The majority of these people stay in homeless shelters or transitional housing.
Dickinson was a real-estate agent who lost his job when the housing market crashed. After actively searching for a new job for eight months to no avail, he was losing hope. Without any prospects, he said, he became homeless.
Having taken the two-hour bus ride to the temporary services office daily, he was always passing by the Olive Garden nearby. One day, he walked in and filled out an application.
“It was the best decision I had made in months,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson started as a busser but has since been promoted to bartender. He also works as a server and is training to become a To-Go specialist.
For Harris, life before Olive Garden was rough and he struggled for many years to get on his feet; however, he never gave up hope.
“I spent time in the streets sleeping on benches not knowing where my next meal was coming from,” Harris said. “I was in and out of shelters trying to figure out what my next step would be. At moments, it felt like people didn’t care, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”
Ironically, Harris was also on a bus when he met a man who worked at Olive Garden. This man inspired him to apply for a job without any experience. He started as a dishwasher and recently was promoted to line cook.
“LIKE A MOTHER”
Although both men had been homeless, there was another common thread in the roles that changed their lives — the woman who took a chance on them, General Manager Jenny Ball.
“If it were not for Darden, Olive Garden and Jenny giving a 54-year-old man a chance, I don’t know where I would be right now,” Dickinson said. “She has been there since the beginning and has taught me about finances and how to be a family. She never lets me be mediocre and pushes me forward every day.”
Harris echoed Dickinson’s sentiments, adding that Ball is “like a mother” to him.
“I have a permanent place that I can call home and a new family to help me through the tough times,” Harris said. “I don’t feel alone anymore.”
Being homeless didn’t just leave the men hungry, lost and wondering what was next. For Dickinson, he also was losing hope and self esteem.
“After losing my career and practically everything I owned, Olive Garden has given me hope again — both financially and emotionally,” Dickinson said. “I don’t worry about what tomorrow is going to bring, because no matter what comes my way, I have the support of my entire Olive Garden family.”
he aims to become a certified trainer and hopes to one day become a manager. Now out of the shelter and off the streets, he lives close to work and is saving to get a place of his own.
For Harris, working at Olive Garden came with new learning opportunities and an abundance of life skills. He also now is out of the homeless shelter and has a roof over his head.
“Since starting at Olive Garden, I learned many new things like how to budget my money,” Harris said. “I learned that people do care and that hard work does pay off. Before I started at Olive Garden, I had no one to call family. Now, I do.”
To learn more about homelessness in the Central Florida area, find shelters and discover how you can help those in need, start with these organizations:
Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected]ngeobserver.com.