LAS VEGAS (AP) — When Jeremy Wood enrolled in the Salvation Army's culinary arts program in 2012, he was an out-of-work web developer who was also homeless.

But five years later, the same program's graduates call the 47-year-old Wood a mentor — those still living on the streets call him hope — and those at Salvation Army call him executive chef.

"I needed a raft to come along and get me out of the ocean," said Wood, who lived on the streets of Las Vegas from 2009 to 2012. "I could have swam out there forever."

More than 500 people have graduated from the organization's cooking program at the College of Southern Nevada in 20 years, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week.

Wood signed up in the summer of 2012 after realizing that the technology industry was growing at a rapid rate, rendering his knowledge outdated.

"I was basically three years behind," Wood said. "So I thought maybe this was the change I needed."

He accepted a low-level position in the Salvation Army kitchen upon graduation— and five years later he's the kitchen's top chef.

Wood said he knows he has the skill set to land a position in a restaurant or resort on the Strip, but says his calling is to the dining room of the Salvation Army, where he can feed and give hope to the current homeless population.

"Hope is in short supply in the homeless community," Wood said. "I want to be that person people can look at and say, 'If he did it, I can do it, too.'"

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Information from: Las Vegas Review-Journal, http://www.lvrj.com