“Teachers open the doors, but you must enter by yourself.” — Chinese proverb
Gavin’s mother could tell he wasn’t convinced that Goodwill’s Hospitality Training Program would be worthwhile, so she checked to make sure he was on time for class.
“She was texting me, ‘You got five minutes — where you at?’” he recalls.
Gavin sent her a selfie from the classroom. The instructor even sent a text to confirm Gavin was there. But Tiffany Wardlaw followed up with in-person visits.
“She came every day to see me in that classroom, peeking her head through the window,” Gavin explains, laughing. “She don’t play. I’m like, ‘I’m right here, momma!’”
She needn’t have worried. Gavin, 26, of Nashville, says he was sold on the hospitality program after just a few hours in class. But Tiffany knows her son is headstrong, and she wanted to make certain he gave this program a chance.
“He has to see it for himself,” she said.
She had other reasons to be concerned. Gavin, her irrepressibly outgoing son with the million-watt smile, had been in trouble with the law. He had been homeless. And he had a toddler who needed his support.
After graduating high school, Gavin found a job he enjoyed with a consumer financial services company. He became the night shift manager. He even took some college classes.
But then his best friend died, and Gavin says he headed down a wrong path. He spent three months in jail, and when he got out, he had no prospects. He was at odds with his mother and wound up hungry and with nowhere to sleep.
“I was jobless — almost hopeless, and I didn’t know where to go,” he says.
For about a month, he stayed at the Nashville Rescue Mission. He became a client of the Oasis Center in Nashville, a nonprofit organization serving youth in crisis. Gavin knew all about the Oasis Center, because his mother works there as a senior youth development specialist.
“The irony of my own kid going through this was hard, but even if I hadn’t worked there, I was going to try to help him find a way out,” Tiffany says. “He just needed a little light at the end of the tunnel. If he could see it, I knew he could get the rest of the way there on his own.”
One of the places Oasis refers its clients for job training is Goodwill. Gavin’s mom suggested he try Goodwill’s hospitality program.
The free, three-day program is for people interested in pursuing a career in the hotel and restaurant industries. Graduates earn two nationally recognized certifications from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute. They also receive training in digital literacy, computer skills, resume building, interviewing and workplace communication. And Goodwill assists students in finding employment opportunities.
In March of 2018, Gavin rode the bus each day to the hospitality class in downtown Nashville.
“I needed mom’s help to motivate me at first, but when I joined that class, and I saw how open they were to giving me an opportunity — I took that,” Gavin says. “I had to, because I had to be a better man for my family and myself.”
One day a guest speaker came to the class. Gena Shearon, human resources director for Holiday Inn Nashville Vanderbilt, told the students how the training they were receiving could help them find jobs and launch careers at her hotel and others.
Gavin was enthusiastic. He told Gena he was going to apply for a job that day. She was dubious, but when she returned to her office, his application was waiting on her computer. Within a few days, Gena interviewed Gavin and toured him around Holiday Inn.
She showed him housekeeping, engineering, accounting, the restaurant, banquet setup and other areas. She could tell a customer-facing position would suit Gavin’s personality, but none of those jobs were available.
“I asked him where was the last place he would want to work, and he stated the dish room,” Gena says. “I told him, unfortunately, that’s what I had available, and he immediately said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
Gavin struggled a bit at first — mostly with staying focused, but he worked hard, and his supervisors helped him succeed. Along the way, he learned to help the chef with food preparation, and he occasionally carried food out to the restaurant buffet. He used those brief opportunities to interact with hotel guests.
A guest even complimented Gavin in an online review on Trip Advisor — the first time any dish room employee had been recognized that way during Gena’s tenure.
After six months, Holiday Inn employees can be considered for a change to a different position. Gavin tried the front desk and immediately shined in that role.
“You just feel his energy and his love for people. His smile lights up the whole room, and he’s just always moving around and doing things — whether it’s helping someone with their luggage or a wheelchair or whatever,” Gena explains.
Today, Gavin marvels at his own progress.
“Now, I can go to my house and cook for my son,” he says. “I have learned so much. Not long ago, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Now, I can pay my rent and my light bill and I’ve got food in the refrigerator. Goodwill has opened up so many good things for me.”
Gavin said one of the best parts of the journey was seeing his mother’s face when he walked in after his successful interview, wearing a Holiday Inn ballcap.
“Tears came to my eyes,” he says. “We’ve been through so much. To see her happy just made me so happy.”
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