From High Finance to High Heat: A Story of Determination, Courage and Heart

In the early 2000s, Joy Nowlin was flying high with a successful career in the mortgage business. She worked herself up through the ranks to the position of senior loan officer, rewarded with a six figure income. Life was good for her family–a husband and three young children–up until that fateful day in 2008 when the lives of millions of Americans changed forever.

Wall Street Journal Headline

In mid-September, headlines across the world screamed “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” The financial crisis of 2008 crushed Joy’s career, livelihood and the stability of her family. Like many, she lost her job but remained hopeful that she would bounce back with a new career. With dogged determination, she set out to reinvent herself when the stark reality hit that an economy in crisis made finding a new career nearly impossible.

The Crisis at Home

“I literally couldn’t get hired at a grocery store,” reflects Joy. “I was willing to work my way up from the bottom – that’s what I did in the mortgage business, but I was told repeatedly that I was overqualified. I couldn’t find steady work.” She continued to interview for hundreds of positions while working odd jobs and using her savings to pay the mortgage and feed the kids. But as it is with every house of cards, one stiff wind can cause a collapse.

“My home was foreclosed on in 2014,” said a tearful Joy. “I just didn’t have any fight left so we had to give up. We’d used my savings and there just wasn’t enough money coming in to keep us in the house. Losing my home was one of the hardest experiences of my life.”

Through the loss of her job, her home and ultimately a separation from her husband, there was one place where Joy was always happy: the kitchen. “I loved being in the kitchen and cooking, especially when things were at their worst. It truly was and is my happy place.”

26 Miles that Changed Everything

In the three years since the foreclosure, Joy has powered forward with a variety of odd jobs, but needed help putting food on the table. Even with her 21-year-old out on his own, she still had two hungry teenagers left to feed. “I’ve been going to my local pantry to pick up food for me and the kids for a while now,” said Joy. “But one day a few months ago, and I don’t really know why, I got in my car and drove 26 miles to Davis Memorial United Methodist Church in North Richland Hills. I’d never been there before. I was broke, barely had enough gas to get there and back, but I needed food so I went.”

As she was waiting to pick up her food, she spotted a flyer from Tarrant Area Food Bank announcing a free culinary training program. The sparks flew. “I knew that’s exactly where I was supposed to be.”

Days later, Joy attended an information session at Tarrant Area Food Bank in Fort Worth, Texas to see if culinary school was an option and as they say, the rest is history. With stiff competition for only 12 slots, Joy was selected to participate in the free 16-week intensive program. A few weeks later, she arrived for her first day of class.

Enter the Legend

Joy was finally in her happy place in the Tarrant Area Food Bank Community Kitchen when on Oct. 17, 2017, her happy place got even happier. “Our guest chef that day was Grady Spears and I got to cook with him,” beamed Joy. “He was making chicken fried steak and I was on the fryer that day so I got to be his sous chef. It was so exciting.”

A story of determination - Chef Grady Spears and Joy working side by side

In the culinary world, Grady Spears, owner of Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Cafe, is a living legend famous for his cowboy cooking. “When we finished our lesson for the day, Grady asked me if I wanted a job working with him. I nearly passed out, but I said yes first!”

By the end of that week, Joy had accepted a position to assist Grady Spears with events planning, catering, training and serving as the kitchen manager at Horseshoe Hill Cowboy Cafe. “I still can’t believe it. I love going to work there every day and I’m so excited for the future.”

And for the first time in nearly 10 years, the future is bright for Joy Nowlin. A few months ago, she was standing in line at a food pantry supported by Tarrant Area Food Bank. Today, that same food bank has given her a career with a nationally known chef and soon, she and her kids will be moving into their first home since the foreclosure.

“I’ve been through a lot of loss in the last nine years, but I know that if I work hard, keep my passion and drive, I will never go backwards again. I’m truly where I’m meant to be – in my happy place.”

To learn more about TAFB’s free culinary training program, visit our Community Kitchen page.

Written by Anita Foster, Staffer, Tarrant Area Food Bank

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