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Focus on Service

Turning a Nightmare into a Good Dream

A Sailor's Quest to Write His Own Story

It is the summer of 1997. Temperatures are in the 90s and there is a slight wind blowing. Children are playing in the streets in the city of Columbus, Ohio.

The living room carpet in the newly-rented house has a gray and black swirl design. The white walls are plastered with bullet holes amongst other damage and disrepair. Wavy strokes of white paint and glitter coat the low-hanging ceiling.

On this day, three children return from summer school classes to a living room full of strangers. As the children sit on the stairs, peeking between the spaces in the wooden pillars set uniformly up the stairwell, they notice their uncle in the crowd. With a knock on the door, everyone stands with the exception of one. A young man walks into the living room. Their uncle proceeds to go into the basement only to return with a thick piece of wood. The children look on as the young man is beaten with the weapon. Within minutes, the young man is on the floor having seizures and bleeding. Moments later, the children are peering at a dead man in their living room.

Of the siblings, the youngest is 7-year-old Samuel Coffee and this is the moment when he not only decided to dream but to follow those dreams to a brighter future.

Unstable Childhood

"We had no time to be kids," said Coffee. "The situation my siblings and I inherited forced us to mature and become self-reliant. If there wasn't anyone there to do something for us, we had to be able to get what we needed to survive."

The situation Coffee refers to includes various illegal activities proven to be harmful to children and their livelihood.

"I barely lived with my mom," he said. "During my time with my mother, there were uninhabitable living conditions, drugs, alcohol, partying, gang activity and sexual misconduct. There were times when we slept in foreclosed homes without heat, electricity and running water in the winter. We would have to go ask our friends for food. I've slept on park benches and been in homeless shelters. I have seen it all. It was tough to deal with it at the time, but we made it through."

Coffee and his siblings were put into foster care when he was seven.

"I have been in more than 12 foster homes throughout my life," he said. "My last foster home was when I was 19 years old. I am used to frequently moving from different cities, states and schools. It's nothing new."

For the first six foster homes, Coffee was accompanied by his two oldest brothers. After that, the brothers returned back home to their biological mother.

"We were informed that she had gotten her life together, so we were allowed to return to her custody," he said. "Upon returning home, things started off bad and only got worse from there."

The boys were taken away from their mom for the second and final time. This time, Coffee had his younger sister and brother in tow. Over the course of six more foster homes, Coffee would discover his niche cooking.

"Since I was a young child, I dreamt of cooking on a U.S. Navy submarine and ultimately in the White House for the President," he said. "When I was younger, I didn't have many opportunities to cook, but when I did, it felt good."

Coffee's growing affinity for extinguishing appetites and expanding palates would be the driving force in changing his life.

Changing Courses

At the age of 22, Coffee enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a Culinary Specialist and reported to boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill.

"That decision will go down as the most important decision in my life," he said. "I understood if I wanted to ultimately be a chef at the White House, I had to be dedicated and make the difficult decisions required to get to the next level."

After boot camp and "A" school, Coffee received orders and reported to Groton, Conn. to serve aboard a submarine but was met with a significant challenge.

"My initial start in Connecticut was crazy because I was about to be kicked out of the Navy after I was medically disqualified from serving aboard submarines," he said. "Luckily, a chief I knew had me transferred from the base galley to the flag mess when he experienced some of the things I've cooked."

Upon being transferred, Coffee's cooking made an instant impact and his talents had found a new home.

With his career reinvigorated, Coffee arrived aboard Harry S. Truman in February 2013, only a month before his first time taking advancement exams.

"I had very limited time to study. So when I took the exam, I didn't have any faith in my chances of advancing. When the 3rd class petty officer results came out and I heard my name, I was excited beyond belief. It inspired and pushed me toward my goals even more."

Basking in Baking

Coffee is now 24 years old, a culinary specialist 3rd class, and the bake shop supervisor in Supply Department's S-2 division. Sailors and Marines aboard Harry S. Truman are familiar with his creations, whether its thousands of dinner rolls for Thanksgiving, or bread cornucopias adorning the forward and aft galleys.

"I bake all the ship's breads, breakfast pastries, desserts and bread cornucopias," he said. "I also do special food decorations for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions."

Coffee said cooking is his favorite thing to do and it is the place where he is the most comfortable.

"When I am in the kitchen and I get in my zone, nothing else matters," he said. "I am doing what I love to do and the possibilities are endless. I can create anything I want to; I just have to allow my imagination and dreams to guide me."

Coffee explained how he differs from those who don't enjoy their job or have a bad day.

"When I have a bad day, I don't want to get off work," he said. "When it is time to leave, I usually want to stay and cook. If it was a bad day, I cook something. The kitchen is my football field and home away from home. It's where my heart is."

Those who work closely with Coffee acknowledge his work ethic and appreciate the attitude he brings to work everyday.

"Coffee is one of the greatest chefs I have seen in the Navy," said Culinary Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Carla Angus, aft galley supervisor with Supply Department. "The professionalism and work ethic he brings to the table is unmatched. He is a great shipmate, friend and chef. When I eat some of his creations, I'm amazed at the range of skill in his toolbox."

Angus said she appreciates his willingness to assist anyone who needs help.

"Every time we've come to Coffee with a giant task, he has risen to the occasion with a smile on his face," she said. "If you hear his story, you would wonder why he is smiling. But he takes the positive from every situation and uses it as an opportunity."

Coffee understands how difficult it was to arrive where he is now and appreciates everything he's been through.

"In all of this, I learned how to tolerate things," he said. "I learned how to emotionally navigate through my feelings to be productive, successful and content with my past. While some would wince at the thought of such a tough history, I allow my mind to wander because the past continues to shape my perspective of progress. It's easy to go back and look at a lot of things I've been through. It's not hard for me. I look back and realize this bad thing or those bad things turned into good things. It has strengthened me mentally, physically and emotionally. I wouldn't say my life has been hard; I would say it's been a learning experience."

Coffee said after all he has been through, he has learned to depend on his spirituality to guide him and keep him grounded.

"Everyone knows I am a spiritual person and during times of stress, difficulty or trouble, I lean on it," he said. "Every time I think about the things that could have defeated me, killed me or stunted my growth, I think of a song by Lillian Lloyd entitled 'One More Chance.' I look back at all those moments and I realize I was given another chance. Even when I have done things wrong, I thank God for one more chance. I still have joy, happiness and peace with my past. I focus on my future and work hard everyday to ensure I reach my dreams. After all of this, I know that anything is possible."