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Delaware restaurants launch new re-entry program

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After spending seven years in prison for drug manufacturing, Allyssa was out on parole. The high school graduate made $120 a week at a part-time job. But rent and utilities were $400 a month, and she often missed work due to court-ordered appointments

The Delaware Restaurant Association has launched the HOPES program to train and employ those re-entering society from incarceration. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DRA

Allyssa attempted to sell jewelry to a pawn shop, but they turned her down. She finally took out a payday loan with high interest. Failing to meet the conditions of her parole, she returned to prison.

“Allyssa” was a hypothetical character assumed by Lori Ewald at a recent reentry simulation on the Widener University Delaware Law School campus.

“Holy cow, this was a powerful exercise,” said Ewald, marketing manager for High Five Hospitality. “There is no doubt that I have a new appreciation for how difficult reentry into reality is.”

The event was organized by Project New Start, which helps people transition out of state and federal incarceration, and the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (DRAEF), which is recruiting employers for its Hospitality Opportunities for People (Re)Entering Society (HOPES) program.

The simulation underscores the challenges individuals face when returning to their communities.

“It is impactful. It is meaningful, and it is incredibly eye-opening for all parties involved,” said Raelynn Grogan, senior director of the DRAEF.

HOPES is designed to ease the transition. But it could also benefit the restaurant industry, which as of May had 1.4 million job openings, according to the National Restaurant Association.

A proving ground

Delaware is one of four states that the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation selected for the $4 million HOPES program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. The others are Michigan, Ohio and Texas, while existing programs run in Chicago, Boston, and Richmond and Farmville, Va.

Restaurants professionals participate in a May training session on the challenges a recently incarcerated person faces upon re-entry. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DRA

In part, Delaware made the list because of its small, manageable size and the existing collaboration between state and nonprofit agencies. Its diverse population also makes it a petri dish for a new project, Grogan said.

The DRAEF is currently working with education supervisors and culinary arts educators to recruit candidates at two correctional facilities: the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center and Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.

There are 15 enrolled in the program, and more than 35 have expressed an interest, Grogan said. The goal is to reach 80 by December 2023.

Candidates, who must be 18 or older and within 20 to 180 days of release, will learn foodservice and hospitality skills and secure at least one industry credential, such as a ServSafe certification. The “students” will also be paired with a case manager.

The Food Bank of Delaware, which has an existing culinary training program, and Project New Start are the DRAEF’s community partners.

Attendees at the reentry simulation have no doubt that guidance is needed. During the playacting period, they had to complete certain tasks within a time limit. A week equaled 15 minutes.

Many realized too late that they needed a state-issued ID to gain benefits, and the line for that service grew so long that people spent the first “week” waiting. They didn’t have time to go to work or attend AA meetings as required, and the probation officer that circled the room did not tolerate excuses.

A win-win initiative

Employment is an important part of the program for the individuals. But it’s also a benefit for participating employers, including High 5 Hospitality, which operates Buffalo Wild Wings, Jersey Mike’s and other franchises around Delaware.

“There are certainly big opportunities to assist these folks, so they don’t return to prison,” Ewald said. “We at High 5 Hospitality are eager to try and help.”

DRAEF’s HOPES program has 12 enrolled hospitality groups with a total of about 45 statewide locations. The benefits are clear. Restaurants were hit hard financially during the pandemic and now need workers. HOPES participants are receiving training at no cost to the employer.

Plus, people from all walks of life have long been welcome in the industry. The late James Beard honoree Matt Haley was in prison before starting SoDel Concepts.

DRAEF, which provides resources and professional development programs to employers, will track the participants for a year.

HOPES is not the only education program that DRAEF has launched in the state. The Restaurant Youth Registered Apprenticeship initiative is for people ages 17 to 24, who can apprentice as a line cook, kitchen manager or restaurant manager. The Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship is for adults ages 24 on the same career paths. The Restaurant Ready Program for those 16 and up focuses on soft-skill core competencies.

The DRAEF also handles the state’s ProStart culinary curriculum in participating high schools. This year, the Caesar Rodney High School team earned first place in the national culinary competition in Washington, D.C. It is the first win for a Delaware team at the national level.

For information on the programs, visit delawarerestaurant.org/education-foundation-2/.

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