A cook at the Eugene Mission, Trent Lee comes to the table despite past circumstances.
After a blazing fire gutted the kitchen that serves on average 800 meals a day to Eugene’s homeless population, the Eugene Mission had to find a solution. Four months later, on a Tuesday morning just after 7 a.m. breakfast is being served.
Trent Lee, the kitchen manager, just finished preparing biscuits, gravy, and hamburger patties out of a portable, temporary kitchen replacing the old one, to a large, hangar-like room full of the Mission’s clientele.
Trent and his coworker, Tim, are now unloading food delivered from local businesses — today’s donation is from Hole-in-the-Wall BBQ.
Trent sets a 12-pack of salsa on the counter inside the portable kitchen as they start planning the lunch preparation.
“Right now we’re doing Taco Tuesday,” Tim says.
“We’re kind of unorthodox with it,” Trent says about their usage of various meats, which include turkey and steak — or whatever else they have to work with.
“Some sort of fajita cooked for you men and you señoritas…if we find some cheese it will be rather neata,” reads the weekly meal planner pinned on the wall.
Trent Lee didn’t always want to be a cook. He grew up in Oregon dreaming of playing professional baseball. He forced himself to do well in school, getting good enough grades to make the baseball team, while working physically demanding jobs through the night. Throughout this time, he battled with drug addictions — his first experimentation was at the age of seven.
He used drugs like cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, mushrooms and LSD to sustain himself at work after high school. Not long after, his priority shifted to spending as much time as possible with his then-wife and child at home, which came at the expense of his sleep. Then began a 10-year-long vicious cycle, as he refers to it. Methamphetamine became another source of escape in 1983, which he believes contributed greatly to his first divorce only three years later. “She went to work one day and never came home,” he recalls.
The divorce ended up causing Trent an unexpected problem. Not having adequate finances, he had to foreclose on his home of 17 years. His son stayed with his mother while he began bunking at family and friends’ houses. It could be his mother’s house, his brother’s or wherever was convenient.
“At that point in time I got into gambling pretty hard,” he said. “It took more out of me than the drug use had.” He was selling nearly everything he owned and was forced to seek therapy specifically for this — something he didn’t have to do during his drug addictions.
Trent remembers how he specifically quit chewing tobacco, an addiction that lasted 17 years.
“What would you like for Christmas?” he asked his son one winter day. His son said he wanted him to stop chewing. It was a tough request to uphold, but Trent finally decided it was time to quit.
Trent’s lifelong dream of playing professional baseball came true after all. He became an All-American with full-ride scholarships to three colleges — University of Nevada, Reno was one — playing semi-professionally and professionally. Playing with the Seattle Mariners in Canada is a memory he holds dear.
Trent sees his athletic past as a reason for the “intestinal fortitude” he possesses — one that has allowed him to overcome trying circumstances including drug addictions.
On top of this fortitude and personal will to succeed, Trent has attributed his successes to things outside of his control — inheritance funds he was granted to help pay for culinary school. After going to culinary school and working as a chef in Florence, Oregon, he moved back to Eugene when his former boss moved and offered him a job at the Eugene Mission.
“This is the job that’s been waiting for me,” Trent says. “I’ve been here two years now as of today. This is my two-year anniversary.”
Tim, Trent’s coworker, has also been at the Mission for about two years, but spent the first six months in the Mission’s “life change program,” which gives people job readiness skills, psychological counseling, and other services.
His reason for coming in 2009 was spurred by a drug addiction that forced him to drop out of the University of Oregon’s psychology department, where he studied for two years. He was an alcoholic with methamphetamine and heroin addictions. Homeless, he came to the Eugene Mission to try getting his feet back on the ground.
The counseling he received at the Mission was crucial to his recovery. They talked about ways to cope with drugs and altering the thought process behind addiction — not needing ‘B’ to get from ‘A’ to ‘C.’
“I’m a lot more positive,” Tim says about his recovery. “I used to be more timid.”
It turns out that the recovery was a challenge Tim and Trent shared. “He came in looking like he had Parkinson’s,” Tim says about Trent — his hands with a constant tremor.
As Tim and Trent share laughs, Tim pours pinto beans into two tin containers, using his latex-gloved hands to disperse them evenly. Lunch preparation is underway, while people are finishing breakfast and filing out of the dining area with empty cups and bowls.
One of these late arrivals, finishing up his biscuit and gravy, pours himself three cups of coffee. Michael wears a green beanie and has a white beard reaching the top of his chest. He has lived in a Conestoga hut about a 30-second walk down the street from the portable kitchen and eating area since August.
He relocated to this garden plot on Eugene Mission property after being displaced from a homeless camp near Autzen Stadium, which is now being used for football game parking. Michael says he doesn’t like living here, but doesn’t believe there’s anyone who really does.
Back in the ’50s, Michael was interested in issues of sustainability, holding many concerns about the expanding economy in the Rogue River Valley. He went on fishing trips here but realized that he didn’t want to see people kill fish. But of his concerns growing up, environmental sustainability wasn’t the only one that led him to take action.
“I was pretty strongly against the war in Vietnam,” Michael recalls. “We didn’t have common sense to see what would happen.”
A passionate environmentalist and Vietnam War protester growing up, Michael gained experiences that put an interesting perspective on many of the present circumstances Oregon, along with the rest of the country, is dealing with. A big one in particular is homelessness — both the cultural ideas of it and the culturally defined issues associated with it.
“The understanding of the ‘homeless issue’ in our culture is pretty shallow,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to lump people into a culture. Homeless wasn’t a word to describe people without homes growing up.”
Like Michael, Trent also pinpoints these stereotypes, offering perspective from someone who transitioned both in and out of homelessness.
“I’ve always had this stigma of ‘I’m too good for this place.’ Now that I work here, I had completely fooled myself,” Trent says.
While Tim plans to go back to school in a year, Trent is happy fulfilling his newly found purpose — serving breakfast to those who may be having a rough day, with hopes of making it the slightest bit better.
Michael points to eight incense-cedar trees coming out from the sidewalk across the street from his Conestoga hut. Looking at the seeds dispersed along the gravel road, he explains an experiment he has been heading in his camp — replanting incense-cedars to try to minimize people’s individual carbon footprints.
“Those trees are sequestering carbon,” he explains wide-eyed. The process begins this way: Take a tin can that would otherwise be thrown away, cut two holes in the sides, and fill it with dirt, leaves, and cedar seeds. When the seedlings sprout with the help of the rain, they are replanted somewhere else and the can is re-used for the same purpose.
“I’m trying to get more people on board with this project,” he says.
Still holding his three cups used for coffee, now empty, and his bowl from breakfast, he explains how he keeps this sustainable lifestyle in action — reusing his paper cups and bowls for up to a week at a time, before they lose their resilience.
“The cups last longer than the bowls,” he explains.