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Once homeless, chef whips up new life

JJ Delisioso's owner overcomes troubles with dedication, assist from Tigard center
by: JAIME VALDEZ Juan Carlos (left) and his son Antonio cook side by side at Juan's new restaurant on Southeast Morrison Street, JJ Delicioso Pastas, an Italian eatery with a Latin flair. With such good fortune, Juan reflects on living through homelessness and despair in his life.

It wasn't long ago that Juan Carlos was moving into Tigard's Good Neighbor Center after losing his job, custody of his daughter and spending several nights living in his car.

Today, the 32-year-old Aloha resident owns his own home, has regained custody of his children and, to the delight of many, has opened his own restaurant in Southeast Portland.

JJ Delisioso Pastas, 607 S.E. Morrison St., opened in May, and Carlos says 100 percent of the credit for his success should go to the Good Neighbor Center, which provides interim shelter and services to the homeless.

'They gave me my chance to be successful,' Carlos says. 'Because of the Good Neighbor Center, I got the opportunity, and look at me now.'

His brightly colored Italian restaurant hums with classical music and a Latin flair. It was Carlos' dream. When the previous owner thought about closing the small eatery with a few booths and a handful of tables, Carlos jumped at the chance to take it over.

'It's a little start, but this is all mine,' he says, noticeably proud. 'Through all the suffering and savings, it's mine. I've gotten no loans. Everything that you see is from savings and my family.'

His staff is mostly family members who put in long hours making the restaurant work. Plans are also on the drawing board for a bar next door.

Fighting for his kids

When Carlos moved into the Good Neighbor Center in 2005, he wasn't sure what he would do. The 12-year-old center on Southwest Greenburg Road has 36 beds and can accommodate nine families at one time. It provides shelter for homeless families and offers programs to get them back on their feet. About 1,400 volunteers work at the center.

At the time, Carlos had hit a rough patch in life. A dispute with his ex-wife led to a custody fight for his 8-year-old daughter. He lost his job and ended up living in his car for two days with his 9-year-old son.

Carlos' girlfriend at the time (now his fiancée) told him about the Good Neighbor Center, and he moved there.

'That first day that I walked into the Good Neighbor Center, I was crying,' Carlos says, sitting in his new restaurant. 'I didn't want to see myself there, but I wanted my daughter, and this was how I was going to get her back.'

Carlos says he was dedicated to turning his life around. 'I hugged my kids and said I was sorry. I told them that I would do something to get us out of there.'

Residents at the Good Neighbor Center can stay for up to three months. By the end of two months, Carlos had gotten a job, had his daughter back and was buying his own house.

'The day I got my daughter back the judge said, 'We need more people like you willing to fight for their children,' ' Carlos says.

The restaurateur, who has lived in the United States since he was 12, said that without a job and with fading hope, he would have gone back to Mexico without the Good Neighbor Center's guidance.

'They helped me find a job and learn how to save and manage my money,' Carlos says. 'They gave me everything I needed: food, clothes, a bus pass to get to work.

'It was because of them that I was able to buy my house and got my kids back. I can manage my money now.'

During those few months, the center helped him find a job cooking for a downtown Portland Italian restaurant, where he was promoted to executive chef after two weeks. Carlos began cooking at a local McDonald's restaurant when he was 13, so being a chef came naturally to him. He even cooked for Good Neighbor Center residents while he lived at the shelter.

Carlos says that he didn't know anything about finances when he became homeless. 'Material things were the biggest thing for me. I spent my money as soon as I had it. But once I knew how to live, I knew that something good would happen.'

'We empowered him'

Sydney Webb, executive director of the Good Neighbor Center, says Carlos is an amazing success story.

'When Juan Carlos came in here, he had figured out what it would take for him to get into housing, and once he had that, he just went for it,' she says.

Some people who go to the Good Neighbor Center expect everything to be done for them, Webb says, but Carlos did it all on his own.

'We empowered him and advocated for him,' she says. 'For some people, that little bit of empowerment is all they need. It boosts them up and gets them to succeed.'

With his life back together, Carlos says the hard times and successes are a good lesson for his children, that 'if you want something in life, you can do it.'

Carlos says he plans to volunteer at the Good Neighbor Center every few months, and cook for residents as a way of saying thank you.