Dignity Served Daily

July 2019 View more

Chef Billy Gordon instructs Café Liberty student Valerie Charlton.

Dan Gibbons has always been good at finding innovative ways to help people. When he wanted to donate to a food drive back in 1984, instead of simply collecting food or writing a check, Gibbons organized one of the area’s first 5K Turkey Trots. What he initially planned as a one-time event has now grown into a Thanksgiving Day tradition in Elmhurst that raises more than $165,000 annually for the six major food banks in DuPage County. 

As executive director and founder of the Dan Gibbons Turkey Trot Foundation, he decided a couple of years ago to take the foundation to the next level. “We didn’t want to be an organization that just gives someone a fish so he can eat for the day. We wanted to teach people to fish so they could eat for a lifetime,” he explains. As a veteran, Gibbons wanted to focus his efforts on providing job training for other veterans and their families. When the opportunity arose in 2017 to purchase a space—complete with kitchen equipment—in Wheaton, Café Liberty was born. 

Now in its second year, Café Liberty (cafeliberty.org) professionally trains participants for a lifetime career in the food service industry. The 11-week program meets three times per week, and utilizes a curriculum developed by Cheryl Corrado, the former executive chef at Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu. 

In addition to its patriotic connotation, Café Liberty is named for its proximity to the Union Pacific train line in downtown Wheaton. Location is key to ensure the program is accessible for veterans. Without access to a car, one student has relied on public transportation to get to the facility—an especially impressive feat considering he’s a 79-year-old navy veteran who lives four miles north of Wrigley Field. “He’s unbelievable. He was never late. In fact, he was always the first one here.” Gibbons was so impressed by his tenacity and culinary skills that he hired him upon graduation. “Eleven weeks seems like a short time, and it is, but when you are around these students three times a week, you understand what’s going on in their lives. They become part of your family and you want to make sure they’re OK. They are here because they are resourceful,” Gibbons says.

“What makes our program unique is that it’s not only open to veterans, but also to their immediate adult family members, under the premise that when one serves, they all serve. So spouses or adult children of veterans can take the course, too,” Gibbons points out. “We believe that helping any one person in the family improves the entire family’s quality of life.”

Café Liberty’s culinary program is offered at no cost to veterans and their families. “There are a lot of hurdles we need to overcome, but we work closely with the counselors at Hines VA Hospital and other veteran organizations to make this work,” Gibbons explains. Several veterans, for example, are interested in the program but are awaiting surgery. Others receive state-funded childcare at the local YWCA.

Gibbons is now looking to expand the program into more cities. “We want to help anyone who wants to be a part of this. If it were up to me I’d have one in every town,” he says. 

The foundation’s next fundraiser will be a country music concert, the inaugural Freedom & Dignity Festival (freedomanddignityfestival.org), featuring Toby Keith, Clay Walker, Coltford, and Craig Campbell on August 10 at Schaumburg Boomers Stadium. 

“We just want to help veterans and their families,” Gibbons reiterates. “It’s not a handout, but a hand up.” 

Photograph by Olivia Kohler