Peninsula Chef Celebrates Impressive Milestone In Mission To Transform Young Lives

In some ways, it was destined that Erickson Valentine would one day work in a restaurant. Just ask him about memories from his early childhood in Haiti and the first two things he mentions are food.

"Bananas. Lots of bananas. And hard boiled eggs," Valentine said.

But the, he adds a third.

"And the orphanage."

Valentine came to the United States at the age of 7 when he was adopted by a family in Palo Alto. While confused at first by what was happening, Valentine says he quickly realized that his life had changed for the better.

Still, trauma he had suffered during those early years means that now, at age 18, Valentine still lives with learning disabilities and developmental delays. They are the kinds of challenges that might make it hard to land a job at a high-end restaurant like The Sea in Palo Alto.

Fortunately, though, Valentine has someone special on this side. And he's not the only one she's helped.

"Hundreds," said Betty Ewing.

Ewing was once the owner of a string of successful Bay Area restaurants. Then, one day, she had an idea. Ewing asked a nearby high school to send over students who were struggling, either with poor grades or bad behavior, and she put them to work in her kitchen.

One by one, Ewing watched them transform.

"Getting from a very slumped-over, immature, uncooperative to someone who will walk right up and shake your hand," Ewing said.

It worked so well, Ewing turned the idea into her own nonprofit, the El Cajon Project, and has been seeing it do wonders for the 25 years now.

"If it hadn't had such success, I wouldn't still be doing it," Ewing said.

And it is not just a success for the students.

At restaurants like The Sea, the El Cajon-placed employees end up being some of the best employees.

"They are always following instructions," The Sea Executive Chef Yu Min Lin said. "To be honest with you they never come late, they always come early."

And that makes is a recipe worth sharing.

"If I didn't get in the program, I wouldn't be here learning these skills," Valentine said. "It's only going to get better from here."

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