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On a Monday night in May, chef Robert Harrison’s 75-seat dining room is packed. Servers balance trays and dance between tables while the Spinners’ “Working My Way Back To You” blares over the sound system. There’s a rhythmic pattern as patrons sit, eat, and leave, only to be replaced by more people. The room seems to skip a beat, though, when a man—with a metal chain wrapped around his hands like a makeshift set of brass knuckles—starts complaining about the food. Security guards quickly move him out of the room, and the dinner service continues.
Harrison, 53, is unperturbed. As the head chef of the Denver Rescue Mission’s (DRM) Lawrence Street Shelter kitchen, he’s used to seeing people at their worst. He’s also watched people help others even when they can’t afford their own meals. He understands this because he was once in this same food line, struggling with substance-abuse addiction.
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Harrison grew up in the South Bronx, but a food services job brought him—along with a meth and crack habit—west to Colorado in 1991. “I was working two full-time jobs,” Harrison says now. “I would take my money and just spend it right on drugs.” He hopped from apartment to apartment until he’d had enough. He showed up in 2007 at the Lawrence Street Shelter hoping to get sober in the New Life Program, a free, faith-based recovery program that includes meals, housing, therapy, job placement assistance, and even dental work. Once he was far enough along in his recovery, Harrison found a job and saved enough to get an apartment. He also found a permanent gig at DRM, where he’s been working for six years. “I guess I’m meant to be here,” he says.
Now, Harrison serves more than 300,000 hot meals a year to Denver’s hungry. The unrelenting pace is part of the reason he made plans to head to New York City this past summer for a three-week vacation. On that May night, he tells Jo Ann Larzik—a longtime kitchen volunteer—that he’s going to spend some time in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She quietly asks what he’s going to do there. The New Life Program encourages members to cut ties with acquaintances or places where it’s just too easy to party and slip up. “Beach, man!” he playfully yells in exasperation. “I got to get my tan!”
Joking aside, Harrison knows the seriousness of her question. Sobriety requires vigilance, and his story of recovery is not the norm: More than 85 percent of addicts relapse. Harrison entered the New Life Program with 25 other men; less than a handful graduated with him. “Two of them drunk themselves to death,” he says, while showing off his blue-laminated admissions badge, which he still carries in his wallet. He puts the badge away, and at 8:30 p.m., when the last guest is gone, he packs up his gear. The stereo is still jamming, and the smooth refrain of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” follows Harrison up the stairs and out onto a rain-soaked Lawrence Street. He nods to a group of men waiting for overnight shelter but keeps walking. He crosses the street, climbs into his car, and heads home.