By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation
Jessica Thomas (in green) with brother, mother, and son at her culinary training program's final exam.
This month when Jessica Thomas returns home after spending three years at the North East Reintegration Center (NERC), she will have a second chance to succeed.
Thomas, who claims she used to be "so bad at cooking that water would burn," now aspires for a career in the culinary field. For the last nine months, she has been leaving prison five days a week to participate in a culinary training program called "Chopping for Change" (C4C).
Run by the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC), C4C is a pre-release, apprenticeship program that equips currently incarcerated women with comprehensive culinary knowledge and advanced cooking methods.
Before their culinary training begins, the women spend three months participating in a suite of behavioral health classes on parenting, life skills, alcohol and drug treatment programming, and more. This portion of the program provides holistic support to help participants develop skills that will enable them to successfully re-enter their communities upon release.
Culinary training at LMM lasts for six months and involves classroom study of culinary essentials and advanced cooking methods, followed by eight-weeks of hands-on kitchen training. Thomas says she loves working in the kitchen and that it is "a whole different thing" compared to the classroom. "It's fast-paced and there's a lot of work that has to be done by everyone in the kitchen."
A major goal of the program is to help women gain employment after their release, therefore becoming "economically self-sufficient," says Bryan Mauk, LMM's Vice President of Workforce Development. It's well-documented that having a job can significantly improve the likelihood that an individual will successfully re-enter their communities and decrease their odds of recidivating, or returning back to prison.
For the program's final exam, the women prepare a meal for their families. Thomas cooked T-bone steak with mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley in addition to vanilla cake with maple frosting for her mom, younger brother and five-year old son. She says they are very proud of her accomplishments.
In addition to earning a postsecondary certificate in culinary arts, LMM also provides employment services that include a four-week course in job readiness. Employment specialists provide workshops and guidance on resume writing and interview skills and assist with job placement upon release.
The interview workshops have helped Thomas recognize both her strengths and weaknesses. "When I'm nervous [in an interview], I fidget with my hands. LMM showed me how to control my nervous tick."
In addition to helping LMM's program participants gain employability and job search skills, employment specialists also actively connect with employers in the communities where the women will return. They talk to "restaurant and food service providers in order to increase interest in hiring our graduates," Mauk says.
Culinary training and job readiness training are only part of the benefits of the program, says Thomas. "Most importantly, Chopping for Change has helped me gain confidence and trust in myself again."
LMM provides training for locals within the community, in addition to women at NERC. Program results are promising: 90 percent of all its graduates are working in the culinary field. Mauk says he's hopeful that C4C graduates will experience similar results, although it is too soon in the pilot program, which launched in January 2016, to tell.
Thomas' success story, among many others, inspired the decision to expand C4C. The program originally served only women returning to Cuyahoga County. With support from ECMC Foundation's investment this year, C4C will have the capacity to serve women at NERC, regardless of which county they are from. The increased reach will expand opportunities for all women from and returning to Northeast Ohio. There are currently 33 women enrolled in the program with as many as 20 beginning in August.