Donny’s Story: From Homeless to Lead Cook
By: Staci Wright
When I was first introduced to Donny Hampton, I could tell that he was the kind of person I could sit and talk with all day long. So when he agreed to an interview with me, that is exactly what we did.
Donny grew up in Miami, Florida and shared stories of his childhood, his love for his mother and his passion for cooking at the young age of 7. As he showed me a scar on his ankle, he explained the story behind it.
One of my favorite programs as a kid was The Wizard of Oz. Back then, it was a 4 hour program and when it would come on my mom would let me stay up late and watch it and she would go into the kitchen and make homemade fries. The next day, I decided I would try and make some fries just like my mama did. So, I get up and I put the grease on the stove and cut the potatoes while the grease was getting hot. I then take the fries out of the water and I drop them in the scalding hot grease and the entire kitchen caught fire. I got scared, so I grabbed the pan and I tried to carry the pan out the back door and some of the grease splattered on my arm and I dropped the pan on my foot.
After that incident, Donny’s mother showed him how to properly cook and maneuver his way around the kitchen. By the time Donny was 9 years old he was preparing the family meals. By 19, he was already a manager at TGI Fridays. He worked his way through restaurants until he opened up his own soul food restaurant in Decatur, GA in 1985. His successful restaurant business came crashing down in 1987 due to problems with substance abuse and he ended up losing everything he had worked so hard for. While telling this part of his story, Donny referred to 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character.”
By 1991, things were looking up again. Donny got married and was working on maintaining a healthy marriage and being a supportive father to his three daughters: Tasha (from a previous relationship), Jahsiland and Natalie. As his marriage began to fall apart, though, so did he. By 2004, he was divorced and back on his destructive path of drugs and alcohol. Money was running low, jobs were difficult to obtain and he hopped from shelter to shelter. He recalled one terrifying night when he was hit in the head with a steel pipe, robbed, assaulted and hospitalized for 8 days.
After being released from the hospital, Donny knew he couldn’t go back to the streets because he wouldn’t survive. Instead, he secured a bed in the Training and Support program at Gateway in August of 2013. He told me the story of his first meeting with his caseworker, Amanda VanDalen, explaining that,
…Once you find people who truly care about your success, you hang on to those people. You appreciate those people and you let them know in every way shape and form that you appreciate those people. We had a person who cared about us and that was motivation enough to do what I had to do.
Donny knew Amanda was someone who genuinely cared about him and his success, so he did not want to let her down. He was true to his word.
Today, Donny is working as lead cook at the Peachtree Club and also as garde manger at the Sheraton Hotel. He has his own apartment and is enjoying decorating his place and getting in touch with his neighbors.
“I’m so happy right now! I have my own place. I have my soberness and I’m looking forward to bettering myself in ways beyond simply having an apartment. I’m responsible for myself, I have responsibilities in my community and I have people I’m responsible to.”
Since leaving Gateway, Donny has come back to visit and brought his family along for a tour; including two of his three daughters. “I wanted my kids to see what I had to go through to get back on the right track so they don’t make the same mistakes.” He wants his daughters to see him as a role model and someone to look up to and be proud of.
“What I learned is to depend more on me and my skills and also to accept help from others. Help doesn’t mean that you are handicapped, help means that you are getting fresh eyes; eyes with experience.” He concludes by quoting Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
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