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Religion & Liberty: Volume 27, Number 3

Out of the frying pan into the fire

    Once men and women leave prison, they have few options and little hope. Edwins is working to change that.

    After someone has paid the price for their crime and completed a prison sentence, the difficulties of their life certainly don’t end there. In her research for When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry, Joan Petersilia found that nearly 75 percent of men and women remained jobless up to a year after release from prison. Department of Justice research found that including a criminal record on an employment application reduced the likelihood of a callback or job offer by up to 50 percent. The United States Sentencing Commission found that more than 40 percent of ex-offenders return to prison within three years. The United States has one of the highest prison populations in the world, with nearly 7 million men and women behind bars; this costs the United States more than $80 billion per year, not including social costs.

    Desperate, hopeless men and women pay their debts to society in the form of prison sentences and continue to pay in the forms of unemployment and recidivism.

    Despite this gloomy outlook, there is hope. Job training, life skills and a safety net can help ex-offenders learn not only to thrive but also to improve their own communities. Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute teaches people these skills. In 2015, Religion & Liberty visited the restaurant in Cleveland and learned more about it and founder Brandon Chrostowski. Two years later, we decided to check in with Edwins and some of the men and women who’ve gone through the program. According to Edwins’ 2016 Report to the Community, 80 restaurants have hired Edwins graduates (165 from the institute and 75 from a program inside Grafton Correctional Institution, less than 30 miles outside of Cleveland). Recidivism for Edwins graduates is 1.2 percent.

    Chrostowski recently stepped down as CEO to focus on community development and is running for mayor of Cleveland. As of July 2017, Thomas Nobbe is interim CEO.

    We spoke to four Edwins graduates who wanted to share their journeys, successes and struggles.

    “It just gave me a sense of purpose,” explains February 2017 graduate Faustino Torres. “I got laid off in 2013, and I had been going from job to job.”

    Exhausted with seasonal jobs and struggling financially, Torres heard about Edwins and took advantage of the opportunity. A former Navy serviceman, Torres sees correlations between his military experience and his formation at Edwins. “It helped me kind of remind myself of where I’ve been and what I’ve done,” Torres says, reflecting on both experiences. “I’ve always had the attitude that there’s nothing I can’t do without preparation and work . . . I had been unemployed for so long that I kind of started to doubt myself. At Edwins you’re constantly under the fire, you’re constantly learning, taking on new skills, and that just reminded me that I can pretty much do anything that I set my mind to.”

    This positive mental outlook and intense training helped Torres turn his situation around. He’s currently working as a prep cook at Urban Farmer, a restaurant in Cleveland. Things certainly aren’t perfect now. He says that finances are still a struggle, but he’s overcoming this obstacle slowly both through his job and through the skills he gained at Edwins. His favorite dish to prepare is duck risotto.

    Not everyone who goes through Edwins has been convicted of a crime or has served prison time; the program is about giving people second chances. Some people work hard, follow the law and still find themselves in seemingly hopeless situations. Angela Sharpley was one of these people. She describes herself as a single mother and victim of domestic violence. She had opened a restaurant in 2010 but, despite winning awards, had been forced to close it in 2014. Looking back she admits she didn’t have the front-of-house skills to run a business, but she says her domestic situation also heavily weighed on her decision to shut down.

    Without a job and with a young daughter to care for, Sharpley took a job canvassing for a presidential candidate. During this time she was invited to a Christmas party at Edwins. Sharpley didn’t want to attend the party because it was the last day of canvassing and she didn’t have enough signatures. But she reluctantly attended, met Brandon Chrostowski and took a leap. She asked him to mentor her.

    Chrostowski encouraged Sharpley to join the Edwins program as soon as possible, so she visited the website. Registration ended at 10 a.m. and it was 8:30 a.m. Despite registration having been open for months, she hadn’t had a chance to visit the website until then. To complete her registration, she needed to visit the restaurant, which was on the other side of town.

    It was wintertime. She didn’t own a car. She was getting over the flu. Sharpley accepted it wasn’t meant to be, but her daughter didn’t accept defeat so easily. “Mom, call Uncle Michael,” her daughter suggested. Sharpley’s brother, who works for the city of Euclid, had a car but was usually busy with work during the day. Sharpley got a hold of Michael, who just happened to be home with a sick puppy that day. He drove her to Edwins, where she signed up and was chosen for the next class.

    Like so many other students, Sharpley discovered the hard work didn’t end with acceptance into Edwins. “It’s a very tedious process,” Sharpley recalls of the training. “The program is very hard. You work 12 hours a day. And it’s four days a week.” Along with maintaining her spot in the program, she had the added stress of worrying about her daughter. It was an extremely difficult six months, but she finished the program and graduated at the top of her class in 2016.

    “And God is making ways for me to get it done. So my faith is what kept me here and has gotten me to this place. I was never afraid.”

    Looking forward, Sharpley hopes to build an organization similar to Edwins but with a focus on single mothers. She knows from her own experience that there just aren’t enough resources for single mothers and women in dire situations. The United States has more than nine million single-mother households— and only one-third receive any child support from the father. That support averages less than $400 a month. Impassioned by these numbers and her own experience, Sharpley is finalizing a business plan for a for-profit restaurant (Edwins is a nonprofit), Pipe’N Hot Grill, and a separate culinary school for low-income single mothers.

    Reflecting on her journey from desperate family situation to where she is now, she knows she was meant to travel this course. The daughter of an evangelist mother, Sharpley spent her childhood in the church and recalls giving her life to Christ when she was six. But  with her business failing and her personal live in tumult, Sharpley struggled with her relationship with God and her love for her hometown of Cleveland. “I don’t know that [God] cared about me,” Sharpley recalls. But now she understands that her difficult journey was necessary for where she is now. In her own words:

    I had to experience these things to even have empathy for those who God called me to help. So now I can relate to single mothers who have been through these different phases because I’ve been through the abuse. I’ve been through brokenness. You just name it. . . . When I was getting ready to leave, I prayed. I told God, “I’m done with Cleveland. I can’t make it here. No one wants to help me. I’m leaving. I’m taking my daughter. I’m going someplace where they help African-American people, where they appreciate my business.” I was just done. Within 30 days I met Brandon and my life turned around. My business isn’t open yet, but I have met people who have helped me get in position. Doors have opened for me because I came through the program, even though I had never been in prison or anything like that. I got discouraged when I saw it was a re-entry for ex-offenders. I’m like, “Oh, gosh. Now I still can’t go.” And Brandon old me, “You were in prison. You just weren’t on the inside.” So he opened the door for me. And God is making ways for me to get it done. So my faith is what kept me here and has gotten me to this place. I was never afraid. It was like I knew God was with me.

    Angela Sharpley is currently exploring locations for Pipe’N Hot Grill.

    Domonique Bell graduated from Edwins at the top of her class in April 2017. She’s a chef with her own station at the Terrace Club, an exclusive restaurant at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. She’s responsible for creating menus and food for the visiting teams. She makes the menus by choosing a country or region and picking the best cuisines they have to offer. Don’t worry, she assures, she never sabotages the opposing team’s meals. Bell’s experience at Edwins wasn’t her first time in a culinary institute. She graduated high school at 16 and immediately attended Pennsylvania Culinary but was unable to finish since certain courses required students to be 18 years old. She began working in restaurants and started her own small catering business. One day she was walking through Shaker Square Neighborhood and happened to notice Edwins and walked in. “I went in there and it was immaculate. It was beautiful,” she says. “You would never think a restaurant like that would be on Shaker Square.” Intrigued, she started talking to staff and learning about the restaurant and found out it was actually a school. “So they gave me some information, and a week later I was in the program.”

    Despite Bell’s initial excitement about the program and the restaurant itself, the training was incredibly difficult. “I’m known to be a quitter,” Bell admits, and the training certainly pushed her. Not only does Edwins squeeze a two-year program into six months, but students are expected to create a fine dining experience for 250–300 diners a night. This didn’t stop Bell. Between her passion for food and the Edwins support system, she not only made it through the program but also graduated top of her class. She credits the instructor’s tough love for this success. “There was support everywhere you turned,” she recalls. “The minute they saw me with a sad face, three instructors were over saying there’s no time for sad faces. They really pushed me, and they pulled out certain things [in me] that I didn’t know I was capable of.”

    She expresses her great appreciation for Edwins and plans to continue a relationship with the institute, hoping to pay it forward.

    After a life of working difficult construction jobs, drinking heavily, several DUIs and a stay in Grafton Correctional Institution, Rich Anderson got a wakeup call and a second chance. While serving for a DUI, Anderson decided to get sober and turn his life around. Edwins was a popular program at Grafton because it was a chance to learn culinary skills and try all sorts of gourmet food. Chrostowski visited with plenty of treats to share, so it was never difficult to find inmates interested in the program. However, most inmates didn’t last long. Anderson estimates his class started with more than 60 students, but fewer than 10 graduated.

    Laziness isn’t tolerated. Stealing isn’t tolerated. Drinking on the job isn’t tolerated. It isn’t a free ride. If you can’t help yourself, Edwins can’t help you.

    Anderson now realizes the program is about so much more than learning to sauté and flambé. “Edwins isn’t just a place to go and learn how to cook,” he explains. “It can teach you how to live your life without having to drink and do drugs.” This is how he describes what he learned in the program:

    Edwins is something that I can’t explain. It’s God’s gift to a lot of people . . . You’ve got to understand it, and you’ve got to take it. You cannot be like most people who get out of prison and still have that mental attitude that they don’t have to do, they don’t have to do, and they don’t have to do. . . . There are rules in the world. I mean, there are rules in life. And when we’re drinking and partying and having a good time, we don’t want to think about rules. There are rules, period. I mean, everybody’s got rules. When you were a kid, you had rules. Just because some of your parents didn’t enforce them doesn’t mean you grow up and don’t have rules. That’s the thing. A lot of people are stuck on that they want to do things their own way, and it’s not going to happen.

    Since graduating from Edwins in 2015, Rich Anderson has been working at Fire Food + Drink in Shaker Square and recently started working in management at a casino buffet in downtown Cleveland. At the time of the interview, he was waiting for his lease to end so he could move into the house he recently purchased. He’s been sober for eight years now.

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