On October 27th, Doe Fund graduate Angel Lopez delivered the keynote speech to 500 guests at the 2016 Doe Fund gala at Cipriani. Angel reflected on the rough childhood he had while growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and how he found himself, and his passion for cooking, in The Doe Fund’s Culinary Arts Program.
Hello, everyone. My name is Angel Lopez. I’m 24 years old. I’m the morning cook at the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity. I was born and raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and this year I became a proud graduate of Ready, Willing & Able.
When I was fourteen, I didn’t see anything like this in my future. I spent all day trying to sell drugs and talk to girls. One of them asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said, “in jail.” I thought I was being funny. Turns out, I was right. I was incarcerated for two years before I got to Ready, Willing & Able. And got to change my life.
See, now that I’m here, on the other side, I can see what was happening. What I was doing. I wasn’t living my life. I was stuck in a story, like a movie you’ve seen over and over again. It’s the same story that’s been running in my neighborhood— the people keep changing, but the ending is always the same.
You don’t even realize that the streets—the story of the streets—got you. You read it like the book of life. But it’s really the book of death. Now that I’m here, on the other side, I see how far back that story really goes.
The last time I saw my father, I was seven years old. The only memory I have is when he walked out on us. That’s when it got real bad at home. My mom sold drugs out of our house to make money. So me and my brother and sister, we got used to a lot: Junkies and dealers hanging around. The smell of crack and weed all night and day. One morning, a crackhead burned our house down. The cops came for my mom and children’s services came for me and my sister and brother. That night, I lost everything I had and everyone I loved.
I was put in four different foster homes before I went to prison. I got stabbed five times by one of my foster brothers…because he wanted my sneakers.
Any chance I got, I hit the streets to escape. I sold drugs. I robbed. Every day was the same: worrying about dying and running from the cops. I knew the ending of the story already. But I was in it. It had me. The book of death. I got shot three times. The last time, I spent a week in the hospital, hooked up to machines. But you know as soon as I could get out of the house on my crutches, I was back selling drugs.
I got busted in 2012 and went to prison where I did two long, lonely, sad years. I can tell you that when I got out, the last thing I wanted to do was push a bucket and pick up trash. But I didn’t have anywhere to go when I got out. All I could do was go to a homeless shelter. There I was, in another sad, lonely place–right where that story wanted me. Thank God for that shelter though. Because that’s where I heard about Ready, Willing & Able.
The first couple of months in the program were hard. Harder than I thought. One of my friends came in with me. He quit after a week. Now, he’s doing eight years upstate. But I thought: if I could stay humble, then I wouldn’t crumble. That’s what kept me going.
One day, some old friends from the neighborhood walked by while I was cleaning and kicked my bucket, and laughed at my uniform. I just kept thinking: yeah, but I’m a working man. I’m a working man, and I’m not going back to prison. And I picked that bucket up and kept on pushing it.
That’s when I realized what this is all about. How I write my own story. You take it a step at a time and before you know it, all those steps add up and you’ve done something good with your life. That’s what I believed in. It got my bucket down the street. And it got me in the kitchen— exactly where I wanted to be.
While I was locked up, I made a list. It’s a list of goals for my life. I didn’t know if I’d ever reach any of them, but I thought about how good it will feel to start crossing them off. But I learned something at The Doe Fund I didn’t expect. Reaching a goal doesn’t shorten your list…it makes it longer. It makes your story longer. It turns a page and then you see all the blank space. And you see…there’s no ending already written! That’s the Book of Life. It’s open. It’s free. Like me.
I got my own apartment. I got a wonderful girl. I got a job—a career in the kitchen—that makes me proud and pays my bills. And now I know that my story, the story of Angel, has only just begun. That’s what I want to say thank you for. To George, to Harriet, to all of you here tonight. Thank you for the opportunity. I don’t know how to say it, any other way, to a group of strangers who saved my life. But it’s a beautiful story. And now it’s mine.
Thank you, everyone. Thank you very much. Good night.