Fort Worth Student Goes From Homeless to College

Teenager prepares for culinary school.

New York is the next step for a Fort Worth teenager who dreams of being a chef.

Cameron Sanders, a June 2015 graduate of Trimble Tech High School, starts class next week at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. The young man has an easygoing style that masks the hard choice he made right before his senior year.

“I used to live with my mom until the situation got bad,” he said.

Sanders said he had no clue where to go. At first, he slept on the couch at the homes of friends. Then, one of those friends convinced his mom to let him stay.

Sanders agreed to rent a room in the house for $50 a week.

“I had to get a job and got a place to live. I have to pay for school, pay for food, pay for rent. So, I didn't have enough money to put back for college.”

Sanders mumbles a bit as he talks about leaving his mom and four younger siblings. It’s not easy to discuss. He is 18, legally an adult, yet still just a kid on his own — a kid with big dreams who realized loving his family meant leaving them.

“I want to be successful. I want to have my own house. I want to go to college. I want to go to Japan and be a sushi chef. I want to have my own restaurant and have all five Michelin stars (a hallmark of fine dining). I want to become the next master chef in the world. I want to be up there.”

“I see it in his eyes, that he wants it. He has a passion. He has a love for what we do,” said Natasha Bruton, a chef and teacher who started Trimble Tech’s award-winning Culinary Arts Program and who’s been Sanders’ champion, the voice in his head encouraging him to keep going.

“She has been there for me since my sophomore year, helped me learn and catch up 'cuz I was already a year behind,” Sanders said. “She does so much out of her own time to help everybody in the culinary program especially me. If it wasn't for her, a lot of us would probably be out there doing nothing with our lives. She's really there for us.”

Bruton called on friends in the restaurant world and got Sanders jobs.  He rode his skateboard to a Pappadeaux restaurant where he shucked oysters and also at the Magnolia Cheese Company.  When it closed, Chef Jen Williams took Sanders with her to Sera.  And through it all, the teacher who first saw that passion in his eyes kept him focused on the bigger goal.

Bruton was on the priority list when Sanders learned he’d been accepted to CIA in Hyde Park, New York, 1,600 miles from home. His perseverance, hard work and grit had paid off.

“The day he got accepted is something I'll never forget, “ Bruton said.

“I got the call in class.” Sanders recalled. “Yes, I got in trouble for answering it, but it was worth it.”

“He’s crying and trembling and he's like ‘CIA wants me. I’m gonna be among the elite, the best.’ And, I said ‘Yes sir, you are,’” said Bruton.

Money, of course, is an issue. Paperwork that would have guaranteed the homeless student financial aid was not filled out properly, Bruton said. So, she dipped into her own money, as she’s done all year for him, called on friends to donate and started a Go Fund Me page to help the future chef afford CIA.

“He has this dream and to see that somebody's gonna crush his dream, I felt like it was my place to make him believe as much as I believed in him,” Bruton said. “I want him to be successful and have a career and live the dreams he wants to live and not be held back by something as silly as ‘I can't go to college because I was homeless and didn't have enough money to go.’"

Word of Sanders' situation reached Russell Kirkpatrick, the co-founder of the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival. One of the goals of the four-day spring festival is to raise funds for local grant programs and culinary scholarships. Sanders had filled out an application for a scholarship and Kirkpatrick quickly pulled together a committee meeting yesterday to make a decision.

The decision to grant the scholarship was easy, said Kirkpatrick.

“The thing that blew me away was the half-dozen recommendation letters from teachers and administrators at the school. Not one had one bit of hesitation that Sanders would succeed,” Kirkpatrick said. The foundation awarded Sanders a $9,000 scholarship. “His dedication and tenacity to succeed are inspiring and we are grateful that we have this opportunity to assist such a deserving young man,” said Kirkpatrick.

“I am so happy for Cameron,” said Bruton. “He is living his dream. What more could you ask for? I feel like I’m in a Disney movie with a happy ending.”

Someone with connections to Southwest Airlines has also donated standby tickets to get Sanders to New York, Bruton said. So Thursday morning, she will accompany him on a flight from Dallas to New York, then on to CIA where classes start Monday, June 18.

Donors to the Go Fund Me page want Sanders to experience the Big Apple before he hits the kitchen.

It’s all so hard for Sanders to take in, right now.

“At first, I was like ‘I'm ready. I'm ready to get out of here’, but now I'm like, ‘I spent my last four years making new friends, building new relationships with people I never thought I'd talk to and we're all leaving, and it's kind of sad.”

Sanders will return to Fort Worth. Ultimately, he wants to come home and help the family he left, a mom and four siblings, find their way, too.

He also wants to return the kindness and generosity so many have shown him.

“I want to be compassionate and caring and show people that food is fun, eating healthy is fun.” Sanders said. “I want to be a chef that gives back to community, help feed the homeless.”

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