PALMETTO — Josh Watkins had intended on spending his life splitting infinitives and stringing subjects and verbs together in journalistic creations. Today he finds himself far more happy splitting watermelon on a hot summer day and snapping peas for a gastronomical delight.
And the residents of Palmetto Park Senior Living Community – part of the Georgia Baptist Retirement Communities ministry – are glad he did.
The Fairburn resident was driven to his journalistic pursuit following the death of his mother when he was 12 years old. One day he discovered some poetry that she had written and was moved by her ability to express her feelings … and began writing some, himself.
While a student at Creekside High School his business instructor mentioned that the then-new Palmetto Park – located on the campus of the Baptist Children’s Homes – was hiring kitchen staff through its Cooperative School Program and it might be a good way to gain some experience while making some money.
It was a world he had never experienced other than being on the side of being served, not being a server. But after he gained a feel for the business he was hooked. Verbs and adverbs were gone, replaced by fried chicken, collard greens, and creamy mashed potatoes.
Put down his pen and picked up his pan
He quickly rose through the ranks from part-time dishwasher to dining room server, a cook, assistant dining room director and finally to his current post – director of dining services.
“I just love working with seniors; every day I feel like I’m coming to work with my grandparents. They helped my dad raise me after my mom passed away so I really have an appreciation for older folks,” he says while standing over a stove, sauté pan in hand.
His new manager at the time saw his eagerness to excel and gave him permission to experiment with different formats. He began by providing private birthday celebrations for seniors and their immediate family, and eventually added a monthly group celebration for all residents.
That creativity knows no bounds and Watkins has since added monthly special events with decorations and food tailored to a theme.
For example there is a cruise ship theme, luau, and 50s diner complete with coke floats and other throw-back delights.
“Every year we add a few more. For example, this Saturday we will be celebrating our third Grandparent’s Day with attendance between 250 and 300,” he adds.
Appreciates learning from senior adults
“I love to watch families interact with their parents and other guests. I learn so much sitting and talking and learning about their lives and the history they have lived through. They have so much knowledge to share that needs to be honored and respected.”
For example, once he ordered a massive supply of beans and invited seniors to come snap beans and share their experiences – whatever they wanted to talk about. Several mentioned how much it brought back memories of snapping beans in their younger days.
Watkins is a constant presence in the kitchen and in the dining hall four days of the week, working 10-hour shifts. He oversees a staff of 14 who prepares breakfast for up to 50 adults, lunch for 120, and dinner for up to 70.
His culinary success has not gone unnoticed outside of his workplace. In August in Indianapolis he captured the 2016 Excellence in Dining Award from the Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals.
Sweat equity in the kitchen pays off
That honor was built upon his sweat equity in the kitchen as well as graduating from the University of Florida’s certified dietary manager and food protection professional correspondence course and moving into his co-director position.
The soft-spoken Riverdale native received the Indianapolis “hands down victory” over 25 competitors. Watkins and his team went on to win the association’s inaugural Foodservice Department of the Year Award.
Sharalene Roper, Watkins’ supervisor, praised the 28-year-old for his ingenuity in combing good nutrition with good fellowship.
“Food becomes not just an item on a menu, but a culinary experience that is infused with creativity, fun, and passion,” she told the local newspaper. “The staff invites the resident to not just be a participant in meals, but to be a contributor.
“Ministry is at the heart of Palmetto Park. Every act and decision that is made by the staff is in the resident’s best interest, including in how to positively impact their lives through food and the love of Christ.”
And after 11 years on the job, Watkins is just getting started. His next big project is an open air café concept that will serve as a gathering spot throughout the day where seniors can visit and get a light snack or smoothie.
Watkins and his wife of four years, Christina, are members of The Church at Chapel Hill in Douglasville.
About Palmetto Park Senior Living Community
Palmetto Park is located 45 minutes south of Atlanta in Palmetto. The campus is comprised of three facilities: Baptist Manor and Willis Cottages. Baptist Manor offers studio and one bedroom apartments designed with comfort and independence in mind. Willis Cottages are nestled around the lake at Palmetto Park and give residents all the comforts of a private home without the worry of upkeep and maintenance.
Palmetto Park Senior Living functions as a ministry for senior adults. The Georgia Baptist ministry’s mission is to provide comfortable, attractive homes and services for senior adults at an affordable price enabling them to age in place in these homes within a Christian environment. The ministry mind is demonstrated in every facet and department at Palmetto Park, making it unique and a great place for senior living. Palmetto Park is a ministry of Baptist Retirement Communities of Ga (BRCGA). For more information wivist www.brcga.org