Culinary Dreams

From the Spring 2010 issue of Relationships magazine.

When Vince Gordon started Young Life in Jackson, Miss., he had come full circle. He and his wife, Leila, had purchased a home right across the street from Gordon’s old high school, smack in the middle of one of the most violent cities in the United States.

“When we moved into that neighborhood,” Gordon said, “everyone wanted to know ‘who is that guy?’” They remodeled the old home — an expansive unit in disrepair, nestled in a community most people were trying to leave.

Gordon started holding club in the home, and soon, he had kids coming over every day. Now, Gordon said, “everybody knows that’s Mr. Gordon’s neighborhood.” One of the first kids to get acquainted with the remodeled house was Taneisha Williams, a teen mom, and a sophomore attending Lanier High School right across the road. Upon entering the Gordons’ home for the first time, her eyes lit up at the sight of his renovated kitchen.

“I always liked to be in the kitchen,” Taneisha recalled. Raised by her grandmother, Taneisha had learned to cook by the time she was 10. She had spent hours in her grandmother’s kitchen watching and learning. Dreams of becoming a professional cook had formed by the time she entered high school. Standing in Gordon’s new cookhouse, she was awestruck. “It was a big, nice, pretty kitchen,” she recalled. She promptly told Gordon she could really cook something up in a place like this.

Gordon wasn’t so sure. He had served as a cook in the Navy, and he knew his way around the galley. Taneisha, called “Cookie” by her friends, persisted. “Mr. Gordon, I can cook for real,” she said. “You can ask anybody!”

Thanksgiving was right around the corner. “I put the challenge to her,” Gordon said. He told her he would purchase every ingredient she needed if she wanted to cook the holiday dinner in his kitchen.

Taneisha accepted. She worked into the night Thanksgiving eve, outrunning the sunrise and outlasting the volunteer leaders who had stayed to help. By morning, she had created a full meal, including cakes and pies, all made from scratch.

“It was perfect,” Gordon boasted. “This was a young girl who was passionate about cooking.”

He helped to nurse her culinary aspirations throughout her time in high school. “He encouraged me,” Taneisha said, “giving me ideas, boosting me on.” The teen mom who used to walk the school hallways with her head down learned to stand tall. “In Young Life, they teach you that no matter what people say about you, God loves you,” she said.

“I like to be a ‘real model,’” Gordon said. “A ‘real model’ is somebody whom a teenager can spend time with. They need to see how we handle problems, how we handle situations.”

Today, Taneisha works at a downtown restaurant in Jackson, where she produces every item on the dessert board. Gordon reconnected with her when he stopped in for a meal last November. “She’s one of their top cooks,” he said.

“Young Life,” Taneisha said, “changed my life.” In a city rife with violence and poverty, she is quick to acknowledge the watchful protection of her heavenly Father. “He let me see 26, and there’s some people who came from school with me who didn’t make it to 26.”

Gordon often recalls the decision to move to the inner city. “I love my job,” he said. “I think Young Life’s tagline, ‘You were made for this,’ fits me like a glove.”