Commentary: Here’s Looking at Second Chances

By Stacia Erdos Littleton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – About a month ago, on a Wednesday night, I drove with friends from Youngstown to Cleveland to a place I’d been wanting to visit for a longtime – Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute. It’s on Shaker Square.

The trip brought back a flood of memories, as I had lived in Shaker until the middle of seventh grade. It had a profound impact on who I am today. I lived with my mother and stepfather on Winslow Road, on the first floor level of a two-family Tudor. I walked about a half mile each day to Lomond Elementary and for a short time attended Byron Junior High School. After school, I would sometimes take the Rapid Transit to Shaker Square or downtown to transfer trains to get home.

I say Shaker had a profound effect on me not only because of how I learned to be independent but because when we moved to rural Chardon – in Geauga County in the middle of seventh grade – I felt like I’d landed on the moon.

Looking back, my elementary school was a special place. It was an environment that was both progressive and diverse. (I remembered many years later that in 6th grade I did the morning announcements on close-circuit television – a harbinger of things to come.)  Of course, I didn’t know how special it was until I left for a much more homogeneous place.

In Shaker, my friends were from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. In fact, my school was fairly evenly divided among White and Black students. Moreover, while some of my friends would rush to get on the bus after school to go to CCD, others would head to Hebrew school. When we went to church, which wasn’t often, we would go to the Unitarian Church, where I would try to imitate the movements of my mom as she rehearsed with the liturgical dance group for a performance of Hosanna, Heysanna from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

I was looking forward to returning to Shaker. I had met the owner of Edwins twice. The first when Brandon Edwin Chrostowski spoke to the Youngstown Rotary Club, and then last year, when he was the keynote speaker for United Returning Citizens’ first fundraising gala.

Brandon’s mission is to change the face of re-entry in the United States. He founded Edwins with the belief that “every human being, regardless of their past, has the right to a fair and equal future.” This is born out of his own story. When he was 18, the Detroit teen was charged with resisting arrest after originally being suspected of a drug-related offense.

 “I was in despair,” he said in a recently published news article. “I was in and out of jails and I was in a position where I didn’t know what I was hanging on for.”

A judge could have imposed a lengthy prison term. Instead, Brandon was sentenced to a year of probation.

That fueled Brandon to focus on becoming a chef. He trained in the world’s finest restaurants including the Michelin-starred Lucas Carton in Paris. Brandon returned to the United States to work under the tutelage of top restaurateurs and a master sommelier.

In 2013, the Leadership & Restaurant Institute opened in Cleveland. He selected the city because of its high incarceration and poverty rates. Brandon believed that there was an opportunity to make a difference with re-entry and second chances.

Edwins is now a campus with a butcher shop, bakery and a second restaurant – Edwins Too. His program provides training in culinary arts and the hospitality industry. But it also helps those who’ve been incarcerated by providing employment, free housing, basic medical care, clothing, job coaching, literacy programs and more. The institute has graduated nearly 600 students, has a 95% employment rate after graduation and a 1% recidivism rate.

Edwins has received a lot of national attention including from The New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes, and the network morning shows, and is also the subject of the Academy Award- nominated documentary “Knife Skills.”

We had an amazing time that night.  Our server’s name was Cush, and he explained with precision and growing confidence the French cuisine on the menu and suggested wonderful wines that would pair well.

Later, Brandon brought us cigars and a special after-dinner drink. I left feeling we’d been treated like royalty! (Full disclosure: He recognized my friends who had been there many times!)

Here in the Mahoning Valley, United Returning Citizens is in a similar space – preparing individuals and families for successful transitions back into the community following incarceration with a holistic approach.

I’ve known its executive director, Dionne Dowdy-Lacey, since she was a Vista volunteer for The Taft Promise Neighborhood, a project in which I was closely involved with at United Way. She and I have noted how our paths seem to keep intersecting. We both are in Rotary. And, URC recently relocated to the Coleman Health Services building where I work on Belmont Avenue.

I’m hoping we can grow the collaboration between our two organizations – with URC providing job training, financial skills, employment, affordable housing and expungement services, and Coleman able to help those returning citizens who are struggling with their mental health.

Here’s Looking at You

On Oct. 6, URC supporters will have the opportunity to walk into a scene from “Casablanca”  in the Stambaugh Ballroom for this year’s fundraiser. OK, maybe not exactly Rick’s Café but don’t be surprised if you see those of us on the gala committee dressed to the nines in 1940s attire. There will be entertainment, drinks, a cigar truck, and maybe a little (fake) poker. This year’s keynoter is Jay Williams, Youngstown’s former mayor, and now president of the Hartford Foundation.

Edwins and URC are both worthy of our support as they are doing important work in their communities. Formerly incarcerated citizens will often say going to prison is a never-ending sentence. They return to a purgatory of sorts, a world that can be both impenetrable and unforgiving. These organizations are working to change that by providing acceptance, purpose … and second chances.