Advocacy Corner: For the Love of Cooking!

Written by Amanda Cassidy, Reentry Advocacy Fellow

When I was released in July of 2019, I was paroled to the Texas Reach Out Ministry homes. I was welcomed by a beautiful woman with a big smile and a warm hug. She was the first person to make me feel comfortable and supported during my reentry journey. The more I got to know her, her story, her dreams and her hopes, the more I loved her ambition and drive. For this month’s Advocacy Corner, I thought who better than to introduce you all to the woman who welcomed me home.

Ellen Brown loves to cook. She shows her love for people through pouring her heart into making meals and sharing them with her family and friends. This love affair with cooking blossomed inside the Mountain View unit kitchen where she was assigned to work. To some people, working in the kitchen is a hot and messy job. For Ellen, it was a place where she can enjoy herself. A kitchen officer noticed that she had real talent as a chef. He encouraged her to pursue this passion when she returned to her community. It was with this encouragement that she began making plans to attend culinary school.

When she wasn’t at work, she was in the unit library researching education opportunities and learned about the culinary program at Austin Community College and she wrote them for information on the program. While waiting for the mail to deliver this information Ellen received news that she had been granted parole and would be heading to SAFPF, an in person therapeutic community, after 8 ½ years in TDCJ. That night she received the information packets from the culinary school at ACC. Ellen began making plans to be released to Austin to pursue her dream while at the same time receiving substance abuse treatment to help her with tools and options for a healthy lifestyle.

After 5 months of treatment in a 6-month program she was called down to the warden’s office. She was told that due to a change in legislature she would be released immediately. They had no information on where she would go, all they knew was they had to release her. Ellen inquired about being released to Austin and they stated that she would probably end up going to College Station or anywhere with a bed available. She was taken to the release unit and put in a van. She got to the Greyhound station in Gatesville before she discovered she was in fact going to Austin Transitional Center, ATC, in Austin TX. She was shocked upon arriving because she had not known about technology advancement, and it looked like people were talking to themselves but in fact were on Bluetooth devices. While at ATC she was meeting with advisors and counselors to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant.

After being released from ATC, she transitioned to Oxford House and relied on Capitol Metro to get to and from work at Chipotle. Navigating the bus system was challenging because where she was from there was not a public transportation system. After 3 months at Oxford House, she was offered a roommate opportunity with women she was incarcerated with. It didn’t take her long to decide that her recovery mattered more to her than ever before and she reached out to Texas Reach Out Ministry to see if they had a bed available for her. TROM taught her how to be consistent and show up for work, how to pay bills and how to be a responsible member of society. With her growing emotional capacity and desire to continue pursuing her career goals she began looking for opportunities as a chef. Utilizing her network, she was able to interview at Café Bistro in Nordstrom’s where she is still employed 3 years later.

After a year and a half at TROM, she was invited by her son to stay with him and help with his newborn son, her grandson. This gave them an opportunity to rebuild their relationship and for her to be a part of her grandchild’s life. Finding housing on her own has been a challenge. Due to restrictive laws and policies, she has only been able to find a place with private rentals. As a result, she is not able to build rental history and credit so that she can improve her living situation. She has been unable to find housing on her own and has only been able to rent a home from privately-owned properties who do not report to credit or rental history, so she is unable to build up a good history. She has been able to maintain employment by being transparent and advocating for herself.

Ellen’s strongest suggestion is to focus on the little steps and not get overwhelmed at the larger pieces. To plan to do the simple things leading up to the bigger goals, focusing on doing the next right thing so that you can continue staying on the right path.

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The Austin/Travis County Reentry Roundtable is collaborative promoting safe and healthy communities through effective reentry and reintegration of formerly incarcerated persons and individuals with criminal histories in Austin/Travis County, Texas.

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