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Hopewell grad finds joy after grief, heads to culinary school

Dominique Gilchrist first applied to Hopewell High’s ProStart program because she thought she’d get to eat in class.

She had no experience cooking, nor with business.

Now, after graduation, she’ll head to Atlanta’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, and she dreams of becoming an executive chef.

Getting involved in ProStart, a two-year program that teaches high school students all about the restaurant and culinary industry, was a departure from what Dominique initially pictured for herself.

A tall 18-year-old who sports short hair, a nose ring and, quite often, mismatched socks, she always thought she was going to be a computer technician for the military. She was even in Hopewell’s Junior ROTC program for the first two years of high school.

But hardships in her own life gave her the inclination to try new things. To rally their support behind the self-described “colorful” senior, her peers voted her Homecoming Queen.

Dominique’s father died in a motorcycle accident when she was 12. When she was about to enter eighth grade, her mother moved her and her two brothers out of Laurel, Md., to start a new life in Charlotte. Dominique attended Coulwood Middle. She said she was angry about moving to Charlotte and expected the move to be temporary.

“The first six months of school, I didn’t want friends,” she said.

When she enrolled at Hopewell, Dominique started to realize her family’s move to Charlotte wasn’t going to be short-term. She joined JROTC and began to change her attitude.

“I decided that’s not my personality,” she said about being angry and isolating herself. “I need to go ahead and deal with it, and deal with whatever is thrown at me. And that’s what I did.”

She said JROTC forced her to open up and engage with people. She became her class leader.

Christine White, her English teacher for junior and senior year, said leadership suits Dominique: “She’s very strong-willed. Definitely not a follower.”

Her junior year, Dominique decided to try something new. She applied for ProStart, and discovered she loves “everything” about cooking.

“It makes other people happy,” she said. “Cooking is selfless. You don’t cook for yourself, it’s for others’ satisfaction.”

Dominique was learning the basics of cooking, serving, food safety – and even the business side of running a restaurant – when everything came to a screeching halt: Her younger brother, then 13, had a heart attack and almost died. He later had a heart transplant.

To stay with her brother and help take care of the family, Dominique missed 36 days of school.

White, her English teacher, saw Dominique’s name on her class roster but had no idea who she was because she hadn’t shown up for class.

When Dominique finally did attend class, White met with her and asked why she wasn’t coming to class.

“I was shocked,” White said. She started having her keep a journal of her thoughts, and said Dominique would write poetry and share with the class – “which is courageous for someone in 11th grade to do,” she noted.

But Dominique was so far behind, and White said it was hard for her to get the necessary work done.

Dominique could have quit.

She could have stayed back a year, or done summer school.

But she came back, and she pushed herself harder than ever before to catch up and do well.

“I couldn’t slack off,” she said. “I had no room for slack.”

Her ProStart teacher, Myra Spitzhoff, said she noticed a difference in Dominique. “She got a spark one day. She has matured. She takes a lead.”

White, who also taught Dominique English this past year, said she is proud of her. “I think she is wise beyond her years,” she said. “She’s just all-around phenomenal. ... She’s willing to learn, that’s what I like about her, and she’s hungry for learning and growing.”

Now Dominique is preparing for college, and she’s excited to meet new people and spend more time in the kitchen in culinary school.

“When something bad happens, something good always comes out of it,” she said. “I live by that now: Everything happens for a reason.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; On Twitter: @YoungAchCLT
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