He dropped to his knees and asked God to kill him.
“If You don’t want me here, take me out,” Fernando Escobar screamed at the sky.
It was 2017. He was drunk, high, hearing threatening voices in his head and living under the Waterman Avenue overpass in Redlands. In quick succession, Escobar went to the hospital, jail, a detox center, the Rescue Mission in Tustin.
Last week, Escobar, 36, was near tears as he recounted his recent past. He’s now the manager/head cook at Open Gate Kitchen, a cafe in Costa Mesa where a team of people in need of redemption are in the process of operating the business and turning their lives around.
“The sky is the limit,” Escobar said, wearing a sharp chef’s smock as he prepared Friday lunches. He said he makes an incredible Korean barbecue bowl.
Open Gate is one of the many obsessions of Deidre Pujols, a dynamo of activism and wife of Angels star Albert Pujols. She is the founder of Open Gate International, a concept that attracts people from vulnerable populations (human trafficking, homeless, veterans, incarcerated and domestic violence survivors), offers culinary and life skills training and then puts them to work in a robust kitchen.
Deidre Pujols oversees similar school/kitchens in Mexico, India, Cambodia and Moldova (with new programs opening soon in Uganda and Belarus). Pujols runs the kitchen in the Costa Mesa cafe, lugging cases of soda, popping into cooking classes and cutting vegetables if necessary.
Open Gate is currently open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Beginning Oct. 5, Pujols will expand the hours to include breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.).
“This is my heart,” she said.
In Escobar, she found a star. It is stories like his that Pujols hopes will become a new television series. She is shopping the idea for a show called “In the Cut,” about the employees of her cafes.
“There is nothing like watching them succeed,” she said. “It is why I will never stop doing what I am doing. They come from such tragic backgrounds.”
She spotted Fernando Escobar in the culinary class. She hired him, promoted him and gave him a raise.
“Fernando has been given the gift of leadership,” Pujols said. “He’s my guy.”
‘Unloved and unwanted’
Escobar was raised in Guatemala, where the first nine-plus years of his life were spent in abject poverty.
There was no running water, and no toilets. He used newspaper for toilet paper. Each family in his neighborhood would leave a barrel on the street, and the barrel was filled up with potable water by a government truck.
His mother left his family and came to the United States, where she took up residence in Banning. Escobar came in 1994 and lived with her in Banning.
“I didn’t speak the language,” he said. “I had no friends. America was not rainbows and sunshine like I thought it would be. I felt unloved and unwanted.”
He developed an alcohol and drug habit at 15. His drug of choice was methamphetamine.
He fathered two children by two women. He got a job as a truck driver, but his addiction was raging.
“I would drive an 18-wheeler with a 12-pack and an 8-ball,” he said. “I could have hurt people.”
Eventually, he quit his job, couldn’t afford to live in a motel and took up a spot underneath the Waterman overpass.
When he finally made it to the Rescue Mission, Escobar heard about two other residents there who were in a culinary training program called Open Gate.
‘God pulled me out’
Deidre Pujols identifies with the people she tries to help.
She has been honored by the Vatican, the United Nations and the President of the United States. She started a program called “Strike Out Slavery” to call attention to human trafficking around the world. But her early life could have easily gone a different direction.
“By the time I was 12, I was in the alcohol cabinet,” said Pujols, who grew up in Kansas City.
At 13, she got into drugs. At 16, she became promiscuous. At 19, she considered suicide. At 20, she got pregnant.
Then she met a budding baseball star named Albert Pujols.
“God pulled me out,” she said.
She tells a funny story about dating Albert.
“If I want to keep this guy, I better get to know what kind of food he likes,” she said.
So she took a notebook and met with Pujols’ aunts, who were from the Dominican Republic. They taught her how to make sazon, a sauce.
She said her sazon helped her lure the baseball slugger.
“It’s not the food that made him stick with me,” she said. “It was the smell of that sauce.”
Deidre and Albert are the parents of five children, and they’ve been involved with children’s charities for years.
A trip around the world convinced Deidre that human trafficking was an immense problem. And that became her focus. She convinced Major League Baseball to team with “Strike Out Slavery” to call attention to sex workers and other victims of trafficking.
Open Gate International was first conceived as a training program for trafficking survivors. Then, Pujols expanded it to include several vulnerable populations.
The OGI culinary students train two days per week for 12 weeks. Then they get three weeks of on-the-job training. They also work on life skills (integrity, accountability, compassion). So far, about 500 students have graduated around the world (138 in Orange County).
The program began Jan. 17, 2017. Pujols was sick that day and she couldn’t make it.
She came the next day, and she’s been there ever since.
“It was like giving birth to my sixth child,” Pujols said.
It’s students like Escobar that give her hope.
“He’s trying to live up to the thing everybody sees in him,” Pujols said.
Escobar still lives at the Rescue Mission. On Thursday, Oct. 1, he plans to move into an apartment in Buena Park.
“Open Gate is teaching me how to step out of my comfort zone,” Escobar said. “They teach me to have confidence in myself.”
Escobar knows how fragile his new, successful life is.
“I’m one bad choice from throwing it all away,” he said.
And he knows how amazing it is to receive admiration from his 14-year-old daughter.
“She tells me how proud of me she is,” he said.
Source: Orange County Register