From Appalachia to Mt. Sinai’s Kosher Kitchen
By: Eugene K. Chow
“I come from an area with some of the poorest zip codes in the nation. I grew up without a lot of possibilities — things were very limited,” Brian Walkup, 48, remembers. “It took everything we had just to make it.”
Born on a farm in southwestern Virginia, Brian’s life would take him from rural Appalachia to the streets of New York City and eventually the kosher kitchen of Mt. Sinai hospital.
Determined to succeed, Brian would let nothing stop him — not his family, not the economic divide in his town, and certainly not the expectations of others. He would rewrite his destiny through sheer force of will and a little help from Neighborhood Trust and the DOE Fund, two Robin Hood grantees.
Growing up, money and support were scarce. His father was a paranoid schizophrenic and didn’t work, and his mother would support the family by doing odd jobs. In rural Virginia, on the edge of Appalachia, there were few opportunities and education was an afterthought for most.
“University was almost a mystery to my family. They wondered why I was doing it. It wasn’t something people from our background did. It was for the doctor’s son, but not me,” he said.
Despite what his friends and family said, Brian wanted to learn and he wanted to go to college. Driven and self-motivated, he studied hard and was accepted to Radford University, becoming the first person in his family to ever attend college.
School wasn’t easy. Brian worked constantly to pay for his education, doing odd jobs including working at a steel mill, and he struggled with manic depression. It took him a few extra years, but he graduated with a liberal arts degree in philosophy, literature, and psychology.
Eager to help others, Brian became a mental health worker. He started in a group home for adults with severe developmental disabilities and later conducted home visits for a community-based mental health program.
“I loved what I did. I was a mental health provider, going to people’s houses, taking them to the grocery store, making sure they were taking their medication — things like that,” he said.
Brian even helped one patient learn to read, taking him to literacy classes and doing his homework with him.
Things were good until the 2008 recession roiled the economy. Severe state-wide budget cuts forced the organization Brian worked for to make layoffs leaving him without a job.
“The recession hit the south hard and you couldn’t buy a job,” he said.
With no stability in his life and an uncertain future, his mental health began to deteriorate and he began losing his long battle with manic depression.
“With the stress of it all, my symptoms flared up,” he said. “I was just lost. I didn’t even know what was wrong with me I was so far gone. I went from being a mental health provider to being the worst patient ever.”
Things spiraled out of control and he eventually became homeless. In an effort to find help and begin anew, he bought a bus ticket to New York City. But when he arrived, his mental state hadn’t improved.
“I was still so symptomatic that I couldn’t function — just wandering the streets and sleeping under bridges,” he said. “I had fallen through the cracks.”
Eventually, he made it to a shelter where he began receiving mental health treatment, and that’s when his life started to turn around.
With the help of the Robin Hood-funded DOE Fund, he got a job as an apprentice in the kitchen of Mt. Sinai hospital. He worked hard and learned quickly, eventually earning a full-time job there as a member of the 11–99 SEIU union. He gradually climbed the ranks, becoming a full-time cook in the kosher kitchen.
With the stability his new job had brought, he was able to take control of his life once more. But despite his hard work, one thing continued to threaten his future stability: his personal finances. They were in shambles after the long years he spent living in the streets. His student loans had defaulted and his credit was shot.
Brian began to grow particularly worried after seeing former union members who had retired return to the kitchen looking for work because of the high cost of living in New York City and inadequate savings. He feared the worst.
“That whole episode of losing my job and becoming homeless — I don’t ever want to be in that position again,” he said. “I can’t make my mental illness go away, but I don’t want it to be in charge of my life anymore.”
So he began attending financial management classes at Neighborhood Trust, a Robin Hood-funded program that helps low-income individuals rebuild their finances and helps them achieve long-term stability and independence.
Working closely with a financial advisor, Brian set a budget, opened a savings account, and paid close attention to every dollar he spent.
“Manic depressives tend to spend money when we’re in a manic phase like it’s monopoly money or something,” he explained. “But I now have strategies — I never had that before.”
He’s signed up for automatic savings and uses the many online financial tools available. Brian’s hard work has paid off, his student loans are no longer in default and his credit rating is now nearly 800, essentially the academic equivalent of an A.
“I’ve got thousands saved now — and I have money for things I need,” he said. “It’s the most phenomenal thing, I never worry about money anymore.”
“No matter what unfolds in my life, I don’t think I’m ever going to be back in the place where I was when this all started. That’s a chapter in my life that’s finished.”