Chef Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, faced a dilemma.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing prisons to outsiders, he needed a way to continue leading his successful restaurant and hospitality courses among incarcerated adults in 12 area facilities.
His solution? Technology. To keep the culinary instruction going, Chrostowski took his talents online, converting his acclaimed programs to video lessons on close-captioned tablets, which will now allow him to reach many more inmates who are interested in the course of study.
Do what we’re already doing
As it turned out, Chrostowski had already laid the foundation for video instruction. “We already have things on video that we use for our students at EDWINS,” Chrostowski recalled. “Let’s just make it more interactive.”
Chrostowski also realized he didn’t have to go it alone. In GTL, a Virginia-based company specializing in communications to correctional facilities, he found a natural and willing partner.
In her three years at GTL, president and chief executive Deb Alderson has made it her mission to reduce recidivism and improve education, insisting on tablets instead of phones for inmates and that those tablets be loaded with training and educational material in addition to games, books, and movies.
A partnership between EDWINS and GTL followed. GTL donated 500,000 tablets, –which now allows the program to reach 20 percent of the U.S. prison population – and helped Chrostowski produce a digital version of his course that allows participants to watch video demonstrations, ask questions, and take quizzes and tests.
Students who complete the video course obtain a culinary degree, and upon release are invited to enroll in the formal six-month training program at EDWINS. Graduates outside Cleveland can have travel expenses covered by the Cleveland Browns and free lodging at the EDWINS Second Chance Life Skills Center.
“GTL was the enabler,” Chrostowski said. “You don’t just walk into a prison and say ‘I want to put my series on your video players.’ You have to have a relationship with someone who sees your vision and shares it.”
The feeling was mutual. Alderson described Chrostowski as a “rock star” and credited him as a leader in developing educational materials for the incarcerated.
“[Chrostowski’s] coursework is incredible,” Alderson said. “We were excited to partner with [his] team to get the material digitized. This is a large job for both of us, but it’s such a great program.”
Videos: Take 2
GTL wasn’t Chrostowski’s only partner. The EDWINS mastermind also got assistance from another group of incarcerated men, with whom he had worked in the past.
After discovering some 24 hours of largely unusable video recorded earlier by a group of inmates at Grafton Correctional Camp, Chrostowski went back to the group – now running its own production company – to produce, with support from the Cleveland Browns, short instructional segments inmates have time to view in full.
The videos offer the same immersive instruction that students at EDWINS receive, including cooking, table service, front-of-house management, bartending, and other elements of restaurant hospitality.
The videos also provide inmates who can’t leave the correctional facility with virtual trips to a produce company, ice cream maker, brewer, and other shops and trades, to see how things work. Some also contain leads to potential employment opportunities.
“In prison, there’s a limited amount of time you can use a tablet, so we had to adjust our curriculum to create modules that were 30 minute bites,” Chrostowski explained.
The videos also provide inmates who can’t leave the correctional facility with trips to a produce company, Mitchell’s ice cream, a beer maker, and other shops and trades, to see how things work, and might provide future employment opportunities.
Putting your past behind you
Heather Pederson is living proof that EDWINS changes lives. After her release from prison in 2013, she applied for and received a part-time position she was knew was going to be unlike any other opportunity.
With Chrostowski’s encouragement, Pederson was promoted to case manager and now serves as Dean of Students.
“My first impression was that Brandon didn’t care about my background,” Pederson said. “He never asked me any questions about it.
“I didn’t feel I had to sell myself to him about my past, which I felt I had to do with other jobs, because they were so focused about my background, instead of what I was bringing to the table.”
The six-month culinary program that Pederson helps teach is a mix of daytime classes and real-world restaurant work in the evening. Students are required to learn every position in both front and back of house.
In addition to culinary training and a job with a living wage, the program also provides help with housing, interview coaching, and medical services.
These, Pederson said, can make all the difference to someone just released from prison and lacking many of life’s basic necessities. She herself didn’t have the proper clothes to wear to a job interview. Now she’s the one helping others get started.
“We help address those issues that might seem small to others, but can be a real barrier to success,” Pederson said. “The men and women of this program, and there are nearly 500 of them, are able to put their pasts behind them, and obtain their goals and hit their dreams.”
It’s all about hope
That this work is able to continue remotely via tablets is a “game changer,” Pederson said. Not only does it allow for broader participation in the program. It also encourages the incarcerated to begin planning a future outside prison.
“Being able to use the GTL tablets is going to spread the message that there is a second chance,” she said. You can hold on, put your past behind you…”
The speed with which the GTL tablet program came together with the support of Browns and other EDWINS patrons remains a source of amazement to Chrostowski. He’s also blown away by the number of lives – tens of thousands, potentially – the program now has the power to transform.
“The world is still spinning the way it was five years ago,” Chrostowski said. “It just took some people to get together and say, ‘Hey we’re willing to do this,’ and now it’s opened up another world.”
But it’s not about numbers for Chrostowski. For him, the real value of the program is at the individual level. It provides a stepping stone where there wasn’t one before and supplies the one thing a new release needs most.
“It’s all about hope, and a way to achieve it,” he said. “For us, it’s about offering you hope…right now while you are incarcerated…We’ll get you here. There’s nothing stopping you if you want to do this.”
Dan Polletta is a veteran Northeast Ohio broadcaster and writer. He has written extensively about arts and culture, with a special interest in jazz.