Cookwell Program offers job training to ex-convicts

Finding a steady job that pays well is a challenge, but for those who have been released from jail, it’s almost impossible.

There are many obstacles facing ex-offenders who want to leave prison behind them and find their place in society.

They lack job skills and transportation. They may not have family for backup and support. They have been released, and they are on their own.

That’s where nonprofit New Jersey Association on Correction and Cookwell, a program sponsored by The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, steps in – to teach job skills, life skills and to help the ex-offenders find work.

“If you ignore that population, what will they do? They re-offend. They will rob you. But if you help them, they will become productive citizens. We have to provide services to them,” said Donnell Cole.

Cole, who is the business manager for the New Jersey Association on Correction, which helps ex-offenders to rejoin society, and Tom Wilfrid, who chairs Cookwell’s organizing board, outlined their respective group’s programs at a forum on mass incarceration held Nov. 17 at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville.

The 14-week Cookwell program teaches culinary skills to ex-offenders who are ready to take the next step in their lives. It is part of The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville’s service mission, which is to focus on helping others, Wilfrid said.

The congregation is especially interested in the topic of mass incarceration, and wants to make an impact on it, Wilfrid said. The members want to help ex-offenders to get back on their feet, and the Cookwell program is one way to do that.

“Why a culinary program? For years, the food industry has been growing. There is the potential for upward mobility,” Wilfrid said.

As chefs gain experience, they may move up to positions in the kitchen with more responsibility, he said.

The first two weeks of the Cookwell program offers intensive training, Wilfrid said. Then, the fledgling chefs are assigned to a 12-week internship with a local restaurant. They work in the restaurant for three days a week, and receive life skills coaching two days a week.

Congregation members meet with the Cookwell participants to mentor them, Wilfrid said.

“(Mentorship) is a very important part of the program. We are welcoming the participants into our community. The mentors will help to trouble-shoot (any issues that the participants encounter),” Wilfrid said.

But since cooking is not for everyone, the New Jersey Association on Correction offers different career options, such as working as a forklift operator in a warehouse.

“The warehouse industry is growing tremendously. There are a lot of jobs, and they can’t fill them. Why not fill them with ex-offenders,” Cole said.

So the New Jersey Association on Correction has initiated a one-week training program for participants that leads to being a certified forklift operator, he said – and it works.

“There was a guy who was getting out of jail. He had an eight-year sentence for drug charges. He was scared. He thought he would have to go back to jail. We trained him, and he got three job offers,” Cole said.

Forklift operators can earn $15 or more per hour in a warehouse, plus overtime pay, Cole said. No longer is having a prison record an excuse for not having a job, he added.

But it’s not just warehouse jobs that are available to ex-offenders, Cole said.

The City of Trenton is hiring ex-offenders to work in the Department of Public Works and at the Trenton Water Works, he said.

The New Jersey Association on Correction can provide short-term housing for ex-offenders as they prepare to be re-integrated into the community, Cole said. The agency will pick them up at the prison, and also will work with agencies to find housing and jobs for them.

Cole is the first to admit that applying for a job is “very intimidating” for an ex-offender.

“You can’t just throw them out there. They don’t have a home, they don’t have a job, they don’t have transportation or food. You have to tackle those issues first, so they can be successful. I’m the one that helps bridge the gap,” he said.

The ex-offenders who complete job training programs and are qualified for jobs can be some of the best workers, Cole said. They are hungry and want to work.

“You see first-hand that there is hope. People who go to jail are not all bad people. They just made a bad choice,” Cole said.