Becoming a Chef Helps Burnell Gilliam Experience Success and Independence

Burnell Gilliam dressed in her chef attire offers a plate of food at her food station.

Winston-Salem State University Chef Burnell Gilliam serves meals to faculty and staff in the Red Room dining area.

Burnell Gilliam is a chef in the food services department for Winston-Salem State University doing what she loves – making people happy through her talent: “I love it and feel important. Seeing that I can make people feel good with food, makes me feel good. When they smile, that makes me happy.”

Maintaining a job that is fulfilling has not always been the case for Gilliam, 49, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress reaction. Her mental health diagnoses and trauma are likely the result of a difficult childhood prior to entering the foster care system.

Prior to moving to Winston-Salem from Asheville in 2009, Gilliam had received similar mental health support services from a community agency. After arriving in Winston-Salem, she began receiving Monarch services with Behavioral Health Therapist Niah White, MSW, LCSW, and the Individual Placement and Supports (IPS) team in Forsyth County.

With the assistance of mental health and IPS services combined, Gilliam is learning to cope with her mental health diagnoses, successfully living on her own, setting professional goals for herself and overall, thriving in life.

IPS Lead Employment Support Professional Gary Bowen, who began working with Gilliam in 2015, is thrilled to see her succeed both personally and professionally and talks proudly of her accomplishments. As part of the Forsyth County IPS team, his expertise is job development which means assisting with the job search, application and interview preparation. Gilliam is also supported by Employment Peer Mentor Lisa Hickman, who helps her develop a budget, seek food and utility resources and secure housing needs.

“She is more receptive now and has matured more in the past six to 12 months than any other time that we have worked with her,” Bowen commented. “She is finally doing what she loves and what she is good at and she is not going to let anyone stop her.”

Burnell Gilliam, left, and Gary Bowen, right, in a red shirt, pose at Winston-Salem State University.

Burnell Gilliam, left, is grateful for the guidance of IPS Lead Employment Support Professional Gary Bowen.

Gilliam was paired with Bowen when a fellow IPS staff member she was working with left Monarch. She had worked as a catering assistant, dietary aide, personal assistant and held positions in the nursing field, but nothing was interesting enough to keep her motivated to stay. He remembers in the beginning that Gilliam found it difficult to accept employer’s constructive feedback, quitting a number of jobs soon after being hired.

Since she loved to cook, her church had offered her an opportunity to assist in the kitchen. During one of their meetings, Bowen suggested culinary school. She applied, was accepted into the program and successfully earned a certificate of completion through Second Harvest Food Bank’s three-month culinary study.

As Gilliam was searching for a new role armed with her culinary experience, Bowen connected with a contact through Aramark to search for any roles food service roles available. The role at WSSU became available, she went through several interviews and was offered the chef position. She is now the chef in the university’s Red Room, where faculty and administration dine.

Gilliam’s passion for her job shines through when she tells of her work experiences, however, she still has “good days and bad days.” Instead of letting frustration affect her job, Gilliam has learned to rely on coping skills such as taking a break or find a quiet area to use breathing techniques to calm herself.

Gilliam knows she can also rely on the Monarch staff, as well as her in a close relationship with a brother and sister. She uses journaling to keep record of how she is feeling from day to day. She takes walks, listening to music. She is grateful for assistance from members of her faith community at St. Peter’s Church and World Outreach Center in Winston-Salem.

Bowen believes that the new “Burnell” has the skills to cope with whatever life throws her. “The person she is now is a totally different person than five years ago,” he noted.

Bowen believes that Gilliam is an excellent example of how IPS helps people with mental health diagnoses flourish and be part of their community. “Without some kind of help, Burnell would probably still be jumping from job to job. Not only was she able to get the job she has now but she has maintained that job for over a year with no incidents, complaints or write-ups. She is now able to resolve conflicts on the job in her own way,” he noted.

Her future is looking even brighter as she works toward a supervisory opportunity at WSSU. “To see where I have come from five years ago, it makes me feel blessed. I am very happy where I am today with my mental health, with the way I talk and the way I act. I have come a long way,” Gilliam remarked.

Posted on: Friday January 29, 2021