Profile: Former Addict Pays It Forward By Giving Back to Group That Helped Her

Hank Kalet | March 23, 2016 | Profiles
‘Chef Pam’ Johnson makes sure that Elijah’s Promise delivers far more than a nutritious meal to the food kitchen’s guests

Pam "Chef Pam" Johnson
Who: Pam Johnson, known as “Chef Pam”

Family: Divorced, two sons

Home: New Brunswick

Age: 50

What she does: Head chef at Elijah’s Promise, soup kitchen and social-services agency in New Brunswick.

What she really does: Johnson is responsible for menu planning, training volunteers, purchasing food, and almost any other task that may come up in the kitchen.

What Elijah’s Promise is: One of the largest soup kitchens in the state, serving all of Middlesex County and part of Somerset County, Elijah’s Promise operates a soup kitchen, culinary school, homeless outreach van, community education, community garden, and various counseling and health services. It serves about 150,000 meals a year and has several hundred volunteers.

How she got there: Johnson grew up in New Brunswick’s rough-and-tumble Memorial Homes public housing complex and started getting in trouble in high school when she got “caught up with the hustle and bustle” of the street. She started dealing and using drugs and spent about a decade addicted to crack and heroin.

She was in her late 20s and knew she had to stop, so she sought help from a program being run out of an apartment in one of Memorial Homes high-rises. TEAM was run by a man named Ed Mann and it proved to be a lifesaver.

“I didn’t know how to get out,” she says. “I would stop using, but I wouldn’t know how to stay stopped. I became homeless and hit rock bottom.”

Mann convinced her to enter a 28-day in-patient program — until then she had only tried shorter term out-patient clinics — and she has been clean for 22 years.

A long-term goal: She was still struggling to make ends meet when her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor suggested the Elijah’s Promise Culinary School.

Johnson was unsure. “I used to come (to the soup kitchen) as a guest when I was using and I was homeless,” she said. “I used to curse them out and made so much trouble.”

She gave it a try, graduated and found work at several New Brunswick restaurants, even opening her own short-lived restaurant called Pam J’s Southern Cuisine.

She has been with Elijah’s Promise 10 years and credits the organization and its former executive director, Lisanne Finston, with giving her purpose.

“The best thing she did for me was to give me a set of keys. She trusted me. She saw a change in me. I was a thief — it was my addiction. But she trusted me.”

Her philosophy: You can’t do it alone.

“I had to pull myself up,” she says. “But I did it with help from the community, with the support of my community.”

That’s why she finds her work at Elijah’s Promise so important. The soup kitchen, which is just one of the services offered by the 27-year-old organization, provides two meals a day, seven days a week, and offers guests — the preferred term for the people eat there — access to soup and salad throughout the day.

The small dining area has about 20 square tables, each decorated with a vase and flowers. The walls are decorated with prints and posters and a large mural.

“This gives them a sense of feeling like they are a part of this,” she says, “that this is their community. This place belongs to them and we’re only the servants.”

Food saves lives: The organization’s motto signals an approach that goes beyond just feeding people to ensuring their health.

In its early days, Elijah’s Promise was like other institutional food service. But over the past decade, under the direction of Johnson, Finston, current Director Jim Zullo, and other staff members, the agency has turned its focus to health and sustainability.

Every meal contains vegetables, and meal planners focus on the number of calories and salt, fat, and sugar content of every meal. They’ve even removed salt shakers from the tables, hoping to help guests combat obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other ailments that can be exacerbated by diet.

At your service: The soup kitchen also acts as an intake facility for other services, including mental health, drug and job counseling, health screenings, and chiropractic care. Many staff members are certified counselors and work to connect guests to the services that may help get them back on their feet.

“I like to believe I am making a difference in everybody’s lives,” she says. “I am not trying to save the world, but if I can help one or two people, I’ve done a good job.”

What’s next? Johnson has dozens of certificates showing off the skills she has learned and the work she has accomplished. But there is one thing she really would like to do — get her high-school diploma, so she can go to college, become a registered dietitian, and expand her efforts helping people eat and live in a more healthy manner.

Shas passed the English part of the test, but missed on the math portion by a few points. She was scheduled to take the math portion again March 15 and was confident she would pass.

“I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life,” she says. “I’ve learned the joy is in the journey and I’m still on my journey. I try every day to make some one’s life better.”

Elijah’s Promise Community Soup Kitchen is located at 18 Nielsen St., New Brunswick; phone: 732-545-9002.