Culinary program helps homeless veterans find a way forward

LAKEWOOD RANCH — The Air Force gave Collin Mapps the confidence he never thought he had, but leaving the military left him lost and without a purpose.

That is, until he joined Vets-2-Chefs with six other homeless veterans.

The program at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee helps returning veterans put the wars they fought behind them, and pull their lives together by entering a civilian career in the culinary arts.

Mapps and the other vets began a five-day boot camp on sanitation and culinary technique in early June as part of a 12-week culinary certification course and has since been working full time at Gecko’s Grill and Pub. One day per week is dedicated to classes in the culinary lab, where instruction is tailored to the menus of the respective restaurants.

The veterans in the program are former Army members Beau Highland, Billy Nobles and Michael Rantz and Navy members Stephanie Smiggen and Adam Carter.

For more information about Goodwill’s Veterans Services Program or to make a gift in support of the Vets-2- Chefs program, go to or call 941-355-2721. Founder Bryan Jacobs can be reached at

On the surface, Vets-2-Chefs is a program that trains homeless veterans in the culinary arts.

Beneath, it is much more.

Mapps joined the military to escape the path of drugs and jail that befell his older brothers.

Graduating boot camp, he says, was the happiest moment of his life.

“My self-esteem was the highest it had ever been in my life. It was like I was proud, you know, to say that I served and that I accomplished something that a lot of my friends and family thought was something I couldn’t make it out of. They said, ‘No way, you’re too skinny. They’re going to kill you in there.’ But I did, and I made it,” Mapps said.

“I was able to pay for my mother to fly to San Antonio to come see me graduate, and fly her back. It felt amazing to do that,” Mapps said. “I even sent her a 70-inch plasma screen TV. I’ve never been able to do that before.”He was assigned to Airman First Class, 100th Security Force Squadron. His newfound purpose gave his 13 siblings something to look up to. Like Mapps, they could be somebody.But the pride Mapps felt ended the day he learned his oldest brother, James, had died. Complications from diabetes claimed James at 26, the same age Mapps is now.Depression hit hard and sent Mapps into a downward spiral. “It was depression, alcoholism and hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was using it as a tool to help self-medicate me from my problems,” he said.He received an honorable discharge in 2011.“I was hanging out with the wrong people giving the wrong advice. The friends I hung out with were getting discharged and not always honorably.” Returning home Returning to Florida, Mapps wanted something that resembled what he had in the military, but he jumped from one low-paying job to another. He struggled to communicate with coworkers, […]

Staff Writer