Olathe & Southwest Joco

Getting lives back on track with a new recipe for success

A special program teaches inmates about cooking and life skills to prepare them for jobs once they’re out of jail. At the Johnson County Adult Residential Center at New Century, instructor Erin Bassett shows Erica Puckett (left), Alecia Wherry and Rex Ball how to dice an onion. The three inmates are participating in the culinary program; Bassett is with Episcopal Community Services.
A special program teaches inmates about cooking and life skills to prepare them for jobs once they’re out of jail. At the Johnson County Adult Residential Center at New Century, instructor Erin Bassett shows Erica Puckett (left), Alecia Wherry and Rex Ball how to dice an onion. The three inmates are participating in the culinary program; Bassett is with Episcopal Community Services. Special to the Star

Kyle Grape seems proud of the new cooking burn on his arm.

He earned the burn while completing a 15-week culinary course through a partnership between Johnson County Corrections and Cultivate Inc., a local nonprofit.

Grape recently landed a job as a cook at Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom in Olathe. He also just received his release date — the date he can leave the county facility after more than a year of incarceration.

Grape, 28, was taken into custody in January 2016 for drug possession. In August he moved from the Johnson County Adult Detention Center in the New Century area, to the county’s Therapeutic Community, which works to rehabilitate people. He’ll be on the residential side of the corrections campus — for people who are on bond — until his release on March 22.

Last fall he heard about an opportunity to apply for a course that would teach him culinary job skills.

“I just wanted something to do that would help me job-wise once I got out” of the Therapeutic Community, Grape said. “And I really love to cook food. And like to eat it as well. I kind of wanted to sharpen my skills in the kitchen.”

That’s how he came under the guidance of Lee Jost, a pastor at Olathe’s Christ the Servant Church and founder of Cultivate Inc.

The three-year-old program has three components: a work-ready certificate; 15 weeks of life skills, such as handling conflict at work and workplace communication; and one-on-one meetings with county corrections staff members who serve as resource developers. (The program is not to be confused with Cultivate Kansas City, which promotes sustainable community farms in urban settings.)

The culinary program covers all kitchen basics, including food safety, how to operate basic kitchen tools and appliances, and math that’s needed for using recipes. The goal is for graduates to become line cooks, prep cooks, or higher — making an average of $13 per hour.

The Johnson County Adult Residential Center houses between 200 to 300 inmates. Right now Cultivate can only accommodate about 10 percent of the population. Grape’s course last semester was small — only seven completed it.

Amy Gulley, a resource developer who plays an integral role in the program, said the course is hard to get into.

She and her team interview applicants and talk to their case managers.

“We make sure their schedule’s going to work with the program’s schedule, make sure they really have an interest in doing the program, and then we just discuss as a team who we think would be a good fit,” she said.

Gulley has worked at the county adult residential center for 16 years and says she’s seen it all. She and Jost ran a pilot program three years ago and only offered welding — they’ve added culinary and forklift training and plan to add two new courses each semester.

But, in that first program, something wasn’t working. They realized they weren’t teaching to the whole person, but only training them to do a job. That’s when they added the life skills component, which is based on a curriculum developed by Episcopal Community Services (ECS), an organization that works to feed the poor and equip them to move beyond poverty. ECS provides an instructor as well as certification in ServSafe, a food safety course.

“What we’re doing is equipping and supporting for that positive life change,” Jost said.

Gulley continued his thought: “…not just putting somebody into a job, because you can do that pretty easily, but really focusing on what the person needs to really be successful once they leave.”

Grape, she said, “is doing awesome. We’re really proud of him.”

“Thank you. I’m trying,” Grape said, smiling.

Grape’s group was the first to complete Cultivate with the addition of the life skills courses. And while it’s too early to know the success rate, the seven who recently graduated all are working as cooks in restaurants and making $13 an hour on average.

Classes are held at the correctional facility in New Century where the inmates live. The teachers are both volunteers from the community and employees of the facility, like Gulley.

Gulley said that feedback from other staff members about the inmates who’ve completed the training is positive. They see a “big change in confidence and attitude, and just being excited about their future,” she said.

That’s certainly true in Grape’s case. He talks about his passion for wrestling and his plans for the future, which don’t stop at cooking.

“I wrestled ever since I was a little kid and all through high school,” Grape said. “I went to college for two years and wrestled. Right now I’m trying to go back to school and I’m going to try to wrestle again and I’m going to finish my degree in physical education.”

He’s been accepted to both Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan., and Labette Community College in Parsons, Kan. Now he has to figure out the financial aid piece — the center is helping him with that as well.

“I want to go for physical education because I want to teach because my end-goal is I want to coach high school wrestling,” Grape said. “That’s where my passion really lies at.”

Most of the Cultivate program is taught by volunteers, and the food for their classes is donated by various churches and organizations. Gulley and Jost both emphasize that this program is very collaborative.

But initially, the willingness of the county to collaborate came as a surprise to Jost.

“We have completely built a partnership,” Jost said.

He looked at Gulley and added, “I think you guys would say that without our participation the program wouldn’t move forward like this, but on the flip side I couldn’t do this out in the community in a building somewhere in Johnson County.

“Partnering together with resources means that a small nonprofit can make a big difference when we work together. Our goal is to see the same results that Corrections wants — lower recidivism, higher retention in jobs, higher stable families,” Jost said.

Gulley and Jost have plans to expand the program. Gulley says that she’s already referring to it as the “College of Trades.”

She said, “Long term, 10 years or so, we would like to see our own training facility here on campus that’s dedicated to various skill trainings along with the life skills, because that’s very important.”

Grape couldn’t agree more. He said the life skills part was essential.

“It kind of got me out of the criminal mindset, thinking that I was just a criminal addict,” he said. “It got me believing I could be a productive citizen and pursue the goals I’ve always had in my life. I didn’t expect that was really going to happen. I thought I was just going to whip up some food and go back to TC.”

The next session will not only include courses in culinary, forklift, and welding, but also auto-tech and Microsoft Excel, taught by a volunteer from Cerner Corp., the North Kansas City-based health care information technology company.

When it comes to what the community and the county can partner to build, Jost said, “The sky’s the limit.”