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illustration of a chef carrying a covered serving trayTDCJ, food bank partnership places offenders in food service jobs

Barbara Robinson loves to cook. So it’s not surprising that she ate up the culinary arts program that TDCJ offers female offenders at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Without it, in fact, she says she might still be starving for a future.

“The class offered me the opportunity to come out here and get a better job, not to be out on the streets doing things that would lead me back to prison,” she said.

Robinson is now head cook at the Kirby Senior Center just outside of San Antonio. She is the first ex-offender to be placed in a job through a new partnership between TDCJ and the San Antonio Food Bank.

Laundry, Food & Supply Department Director Tony D’Cunha said the pilot placement program is an extension of the Work Against Recidivism (WAR) initiative he launched in 2000 while heading up Texas Correctional Industries. Through the 2007 fiscal year, the WAR program had placed 1,740 offenders in jobs upon their release.

Chef Mario Perez stands in kitchen
San Antonio Food Bank Executive Chef Mario Perez stands in the kitchen where TDCJ offenders will continue their training as cooks.

Photos by David Nunnelee

“What we’re trying to do now in Laundry, Food & Supply is take the individuals who have gone through our culinary programs and place them in jobs,” D’Cunha said. “So basically, we’re just trying to close the loop. We invest money and time in training them, so why not take it one step further and place them?”

TDCJ has had trusty offenders from the Dominguez State Jail working at the San Antonio Food Bank in its warehouse operations for years. With the new partnership, trusties who have completed a culinary arts program and show promise as a cook or chef will now be making meals at the food bank under the direction of executive chef Mario Perez. Since Dominguez is now the only TDCJ facility where offenders can be housed close to the food bank, male trusties will be the first participants.

D’Cunha said a few trusties will start out cooking meals at the food bank and others will be added over time. He said all offenders must be within two to five years of release and maintain clean disciplinary records throughout their 10 weeks of training. While at the food bank, offenders will help to prepare approximately 500 meals a day for needy children, battered women shelters, and centers for the homeless. Local restaurant managers and chefs will be invited to sample their work in the hopes of offering them employment upon their release.

“Private enterprise benefits because it doesn’t have to train these folks,” D’Cunha said. “You can invest several years in training someone to become a cook or a chef. We’ve already done that for them.”

Culinary arts programs were first offered to TDCJ offenders last year. The six-month programs are now operating at the Hilltop Unit for females, and at the Eastham, Ferguson, and Central units for male offenders.

Robinson was discharged in September after serving three years on charges stemming from a domestic dispute. She immediately contacted Perez at the San Antonio Food Bank who, in turn, recommended her to the Kirby Senior Center after reviewing her prison training.

“She sounded very confident,” Perez said about his interview with Robinson. “I asked her pertinent questions that only a good chef would know, and she knew it.”

Barbara Robinson stands in front of Kirby Senior Center sign
Because of her culinary arts training, Barbara Robinson was recommended for a job as head cook at the Kirby Senior Center just weeks following her discharge from prison.
Perez said he has trained nearly 90 chefs during his five years at the food bank and that one of his star pupils was a former offender who served time at the Dominguez State Jail.

“I think the offenders will make very good cooks because I feel that they don’t want to go back,” he said. “This is their chance.”

As head cook, Robinson prepares nutritious meals for 45 to 65 seniors a day on average. On special occasions, such as Halloween, she can expect to serve several hundred people. The center also prepares take-out orders.

“In class, we learned how to cook large portions for different institutions and big restaurants,” she said. “I knew how to cook before, but not the large portions.”

Besides doing all the cooking, Robinson is responsible for putting together a monthly menu and presenting new recipes to her small staff of community volunteers. She is also in charge of buying items and managing the kitchen budget.

“My job is wonderful,” said Robinson, who started out earning $8 an hour. “I like these people and I like working here.”

Kirby Senior Center Manager Joye McQueen said she had no qualms about hiring Robinson.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “She came very highly recommended by someone who knew of her work. And she’s doing fantastic. I’m very glad I hired her. It was one of those things that worked out perfectly for everybody.”

McQueen said the culinary class Robinson completed while in prison was a big plus.

“Absolutely, it made a difference,” she said. “Knowing that she had gone through a program where they learned about kitchen administration, inventories, food preparation, and sanitation policies and procedures was all very important.”

In a letter to Jerry Koch, who teaches the culinary arts class at Hilltop for the Windham School District, Robinson said: “I learned a lot from you. Not just cooking and measuring things, but how to carry myself and how to present myself professionally to my employer.”

Robinson also had words of advice for those who follow her in the program.

“Ladies, I’d like to encourage you to stick it out and stay with that class,” she wrote. “There is a great deal of opportunities out here in the food service business. The pay is good. Besides that, there is more opportunity to grow in this industry. My advice to you ladies sitting exactly where I was is study, study, study, and don’t give up.”

Robinson said she’s grateful for the opportunity the culinary arts class gave her.

“Without the training, I’d probably still be looking for a job and surviving the best way that I could,” she said in October. “But I didn’t have to do that. I was given an opportunity to take what I learned in that prison and bring it out here and share it with these people. I feel like it was a blessing.”

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Governor appoints three to Texas Board of Criminal Justice

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice has three new members.

In December, Gov. Rick Perry announced the appointments of R. Terrell McCombs of San Antonio, John “Eric” Gambrell of Highland Park, and Janice Harris Lord of Arlington to the nine-member board that oversees the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The new board members replace Adrian Arriaga of McAllen, Pierce Miller of San Angelo, and Patricia Day of Dallas, respectively.

portrait of John "Eric" Gambrell portrait of Janice Harris Lord portrait of R. Terrell McCombs
John “Eric” Gambrell
Janice Harris Lord
R. Terrell McCombs

McCombs is vice-president and director of procurement for McCombs Enterprises in San Antonio. He is a graduate of the University of Houston and holds a master’s degree in marketing from George Washington University. McCombs is a past president of the San Antonio Sports Foundation and the University Health System Foundation. He also is a past chairman of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. His term expires Feb. 1, 2013.

Gambrell is a partner with the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld; LLP. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University and the University of Texas School of Law. Gambrell serves on the Highland Park Zoning Commission and is a member of Leadership Dallas. He is this year’s chair of the Dallas Bar Association Memorial and History Committee, as well as a nominating committee member and Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation. In June 2007, the Dallas Business Journal named Gambrell one of the top 15 business defense lawyers in Dallas-Fort Worth. His term also expires on Feb. 1, 2013.

Lord is a social worker who serves as a national consultant on crime victim issues and provides technical assistance to state victim assistance academies. She is a graduate of Phillips University in Oklahoma and received a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work. Lord is a member of the National Consortium of Crime Victim Assistance Standards, and is a curriculum developer for the National Victim Assistance Academy and Texas Victim Assistance Academy. She has a broad background focusing on homicide, catastrophic injury, death notification, ethics in victim services, and spiritually sensitive victim services. Her appointment expires February 1, 2009.

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