When he lost his dad at the age of 13, Michael Rodriguez looked for ways to fill the void.
He turned to the neighborhood gang for support, and he had already begun experimenting with drugs a short time after. He was selling drugs just to get by.
“Once my dad died when I was 13, I wanted that love,” said Rodriguez, 25, of Stanton. “They all showed me love. I felt loved after my dad died, and I started hanging around with the wrong people, started using drugs, tried heroin after he died.
“I tried it a few times. I wasn’t addicted to it, but I liked the feeling. It kept me away from reality … about losing my dad.”
One thing led to another. By 14, Rodriguez was intermittently homeless. By 17, Rodriguez found a drug he had promised his dad he would never do in methamphetamine.
“I just cracked,” he recalled. “I tried it out. It was bad for a few years.”
Rodriguez said a family friend told him about a culinary school in Costa Mesa called Open Gate International, and it has become his way out.
The program takes aim at equipping people from vulnerable life situations with a skill set to find gainful employment, but also the life skills to make good choices.
Both Rodriguez and his stepbrother, David Lopez, 30, work for Open Gate Kitchen, the restaurant and proving ground for the culinary school’s graduates.
Open Gate International, an Orange County-based culinary school and nonprofit organization, has produced 138 graduates since it was launched in January 2017.
Guarded as one with his past might be, Rodriguez recounted that he would seldom talk to anyone when he entered the program. He learned to love it and said that Open Gate marked his first graduation of any kind, a broad smile showing on his face as he talked about the happiness it brought him.
Rodriguez is married. He has fathered two children from two different women, and he also has a stepdaughter. His outlook on life has improved dramatically. He says he has stayed away from drugs, with his kids serving as the motivation.
“We both lived that life,” Rodriguez said of himself and his stepbrother trying to turn their lives around. “We’re just trying to change now. We’re trying to progress.
“We’re trying to get a house together. From kids doing crimes and going to jail together to now we’re working, getting paychecks, saving.”
Human trafficking had been an issue that Deidre Pujols, 44, a champion for vulnerable populations and the wife of Angels baseball star Albert Pujols, wanted to address. Open Gate International grew out of those efforts.
A trip abroad to several countries for Pujols