Teens feast on chicken wings and life lessons at Robinson Gardens Apartments
Chef Kelly Dobbins makes the best chili and chicken wings in the world, and teens at the Robinson Gardens Youth Group know that for sure.
Dobbins, a Springfield native who owns Iona’s Café & Grill on Oak Street, paid a visit recently to the youth group at the Springfield Housing Authority family development in the Pine Point section of the city.
Naturally, he brought some fine homemade delectables, straight from his restaurant. Before telling the teens about his life, he set up a table with a pot full of steaming chili, and a bowl piled with spicy chicken wings, both cooked by himself using his own recipes.
Before the snack was served, Dobbins shared details and lessons from growing up in Springfield, his days as a student at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical School, his decade in Georgia where he and his wife raised their two children, and his homecoming back to this city, where he pursued his dream of being a chef.
Along the way came many lessons, which he was happy to share.
“I look at my life as a tough road – nothing is easy,” said Dobbins, who graduate from Putnam in 1992 with training in a now-defunct program called ‘appliances’. He is now 45.
“But you’ve got to think about what you want in life, and then make it happen. You always want to invest in yourself and start planning. Think about that every day,” he said.
A great start for life planning, he noted, is to make a list of goals and pin them on the refrigerator at home as a constant reminder.
“You’ll walk by those goals every day and you’ll be thinking about them,” he said.
For Dobbins, a dream of going to college got a postponement thanks to marriage and family, and he moved south for employment he needed. When his son and daughter grew up – one is now a nurse and the other studying chemical engineering – he went to culinary school and learned the profession he had always dreamed of.
Today, he runs a successful restaurant and catering business in the Indian Orchard section of the city, and loves what he’s doing. He named his restaurant after his grandmother, Iona, who taught him to always give back to the community.
His chili has won several awards, which members of the Robinson Gardens Youth could tell just by tasting.
“This chili is so good,” said Kashawn Lenorr, who is 15. “The chicken is good too.”
Like the other teens, Lenorr said the talk from Dobbins was interesting and got him to thinking.
“I like that idea of making a list of your goals. That’ll keep reminding me what I want to do,” he said.
Nate Hunt, 16, agreed.
“He’s pretty good, I liked hearing about how he got to where he’s at. He’s a good cook, too,” Hunt said.
The visit by Dobbins came courtesy of SHA Youth Engagement Coordinator Jimmie Mitchell, who meets weekday afternoons with the group of about two dozen teens to keep them on academic track, and making future plans.
Mitchell and Dobbins go way back, to the days when Mitchell was a counselor at Putnam and Dobbins was a student.
“He’d always be keeping a good eye on me and all the other kids,” Dobbins recalled with a smile. “He always knew where we were, he knew all the hiding spots.”
So fond is the relationship that Dobbins named his wings on the menu ‘Jimmie Wings’ in honor of his one-time mentor.
Mitchell said he is always looking for local success stories to bring to the Robinson Gardens youth, so they can see positive, home-grown examples.
“Visits like this are so good for my kids,” Mitchell said. “Mr. Dobbins is someone who was once like they are now, and they can see for themselves how he’s made something for himself.”
Thirteen-year-old Shamya Cotto-Gates said she got that lesson, easily.
“He was good, telling us about his life. The chicken was good too,” she said.
Christ Ortiz, 15, newly-elected president of the Youth Group, said visits like Dobbins’ are always a pleasure.
“He makes you think about your own life, and what you want to do with that. He was inspiring,” Ortiz said.
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