Wednesday, August 1, 2012

You Haven't Heard of Edwins...Yet

Lots of people go to prison. And they face serious obstacles once they get out when it comes to making their way, finding employment and establishing a normal life. The sad truth is that many end up back inside, caught in a cycle of recidivism that defines the rest of their lives. A small group of people in Cleveland led by Brandon Chrostowski, general manager, sommelier and fromager at L’Albatros, is doing something to change that story.

The project is called Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. It’s a six-month foundational culinary industry education program for formerly incarcerated men and women. It will provide front and back of the house training and a working restaurant that is open to the public where on the job skills can be learned and practiced. The plan is to have an accomplished professional chef helming the kitchen. Participants will also do internships at other local restaurants. The non-profit group is taking a holistic approach: they’re partnering with a number of local agencies and organizations to integrate an array of support services such as counseling, financial coaching, transitional housing, literacy and medical care into the package. Specifics of what will be taught and details of all the other types of assistance offered are on the website.

The idea started in Chrostowski’s head and has been in development for almost ten years. Now he’s ready to go from concept to action. He and Matt Fieldman, who serves as Edwins’ President, and their board need are considering a location at 69th and Euclid in the MidTown neighborhood. The building is currently being renovated, and the restaurant build out wouldn’t happen until after that is completed. The goal is to open early next year. But reaching it depends on raising the necessary capital. According to Brandon and Matt nothing quite like this exists. There are, Matt told me, “re-entry cafes” in other cities that offer some minimal training. But this will be a fine dining establishment.

Edwins now needs friends and funds. At a kick-off event I attended earlier this summer, Chrostowski spoke eloquently to a crowd about his motivation and his dream. “This is about second chances,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life, and I was able to recover from them. The restaurant business taught me about teamwork, respect, and humility- things that made me the successful person I am today. This is a chance for me to give back, to provide mentors and opportunities, and to help people get back on their feet.”

Later in the evening Judge Dan Polster said a few words on behalf of Edwins that touched me deeply. “In the American system of justice the idea is “do the crime, do the time, then move on.” But unfortunately that’s not always what happens. Many are not able to move on.” He noted that with a job, the odds of staying out of jail are much much better than without one, and went on to explain that in his Jewish tradition, the highest level of righteousness is not give charity but to give people the tools they need to be self-sufficient. “This program aims to do that, to give an individual back their dignity and a way to succeed.”

This is a noble and important effort. It deserves this community’s support. And there are many ways to step up from writing a check and letting potential donors know about this effort to introducing the Edwins team to possible sponsors and collaborators. If we all do a little, a lot can happen.

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