Few people have more to give thanks for than Kimmi Halbrook, who served up a heaping helping of gratitude with every plate she prepared at the annual Union Gospel Mission dinner on Wednesday.
“I just want to give back,” said Halbrook, a former drug addict who found redemption at the mission and is not ashamed to admit it. “The compassion they showed me I never experienced before, and now that I have, it’s my goal to share it with others.”
Once a client of the mission’s Crisis Shelter for Women and Children, she is giving back the best way she knows how, the way the mission showed her: in the kitchen.
A graduate of the mission’s culinary arts program, Halbrook recently landed a job with Centerplate, the caterer for the Spokane Convention Center. And like the other Centerplate employees, she volunteered to serve Thanksgiving eve dinner to nearly 900 people.
But along with the turkey and dressing, Halbrook, 42, wants to share her story in the hopes that it may help others – perhaps someone she served on Wednesday – understand that if she can do it, so can they.
“Most meth addicts don’t make it out,” Halbrook said. “I don’t think they believe that they are going to make it, or be loved, or have a chance.”
Since she left home at age 15, Halbrook said, she “made her living and survived in the drug world.”
She ended up addicted to methamphetamine and sold it. It cost her her home, a marriage and two young children, who were taken away by the state in 2006.
“My plan was just to be numb for a year until I could see them,” Halbrook recalled. “Well, that turned into three years.”
She tried to raise money to fight for her kids, “but of course, I did it all the wrong way,” and ended up with a forgery conviction, for which she was sentenced to a year’s probation.
In the meantime, her brother-in-law and his wife adopted the children, ages 7 and 3. She would call, but her in-laws knew she was still using, so they hung up on her.
She said she used to try to make deals with God: “If you help me, I’ll stop using drugs.”
It was her way to barter for what she wanted, but she came to believe she didn’t have anything to offer God. She was in way too deep.
“When you’re high, everything is like rose-colored glasses,” Halbrook said. “Nothing seems dirty. It doesn’t matter. You have no morals or cares. But when you’re not high you start to realize it, and it’s pretty ugly.”
She decided she needed to get out of the place she was in, and one morning in 2009, before anyone else was awake at the drug house, she walked away. Along East Sprague Avenue she saw a motel where she used to use drugs. It had been converted into the Union Gospel Mission Crisis Shelter for Women and Children.
“As corny as it sounds, you know that sign on the front of the building that says ‘Hope starts here’?” Halbrook asked. “I wanted that to count for me.”
So she went inside and never looked back.
“It wasn’t so much what they said as how they treated me, ’cause I’ve heard a lot of lines in my life, so words don’t really faze me, but they treated me with kindness and respect,” she said.
After three months, Halbrook entered a drug-treatment program at Union Gospel Mission’s Anna Ogden Hall. After several months, she began speaking to her relatives. Then they started letting her come over to see the children. After completing the 18-month program, she got to have them over every other weekend at the home she rents with two other women.
While in the program, she began a yearlong internship with Steve Viers, the chef at Union Gospel Mission.
“She would literally burn water when she got into my kitchen,” Viers said, “but she was a quick learner.”
The chef was interested in getting someone from Ogden Hall to help him, and he felt Halbrook was “ready, mature and responsible enough. She was here for the right reasons,” he said.
Viers introduced Halbrook to Harold Froewiss, head chef for Centerplate, who hired her as a prep cook at the Convention Center in September.
“She fit right in,” Froewiss said. “She works hard and the crew loves her.”
This year, his entire crew, not just Halbrook, volunteered at the Mission’s Thanksgiving dinner; 894 people came out for the feast Wednesday.
Her goal is to one day open her own diner where she can offer internships to others looking to start their lives over.
“The only thing I’m sure of is God wants me in food,” Halbrook said. “It’s not so much about the cooking as what I share with people or what they share with me while we are cooking.”
Last week, an early morning fire forced Halbrook and her roommates out of their South Hill home, but their landlord found them another apartment. She is handling a crisis that once would have pushed her back into the abyss.
“When you get sober, there is a lot to deal with,” she said. “Life is going to happen, and you have to deal with it, especially if you don’t want to go back, and I don’t.”