Mercy Over Judgement: OGI Class Begins at the Orange County Juvenile Hall

By Deidre Pujols, Founder, Open Gate International

It will truly be a culinary class like no other. In fact, it’s the first of its kind: A replicable model that equips incarcerated young men with an in-demand trade. The timing of this first, 12-week course could not be better: When the food industry desperately needs workers.

You may be thinking, “But these guys did some really bad things. They should be in jail.” I don’t disagree. What’s missing from the time they are serving is the genuine opportunity to pursue the mindset and spiritual transformation every human being is capable of. With OGI’s culinary training, we are teaching young men through sensory experiences: Seeing, touching, tasting and smelling the food; bringing back memories of family meals for many, helping them remember moments when they felt safe and happy. We are addressing their emotional and social needs through a trauma-informed life skills approach—helping them recognize and correct old habits that fueled the trauma-fueled choices that put them where they are today.

Our Goal: 100% Recidivism (No Graduates Return to Jail or Prison)

The 10 young men in our 12-week culinary class that began October 1 are between the ages of 18 and 25, a time of life when so many young people are seeking community, validation and purpose. Each of them will be up for release, and until now, would have no plan on how to resist returning to illegal activities. At this stage, at this age, they are vulnerable to lives of crime. Now is the time to help them reprogram how they feel about themselves. The OGI culinary class is NOT about behavior modification. It’s about HEART TRANSFORMATION. The way these young men think and believe in themselves must be rewired, and I have no doubt in my mind we will succeed. We will equip these students with the tools, culinary certifications, employment connections and support to stay out of prison.

The guys are all in. The workstations are set up. They can’t wait to don their white chef coats. They can’t believe someone believes in them like WE believe in them. Led by Chef Cinthia’s stellar cooking instruction and life skills coaching from myself, we feel energized and empowered like never before. Both of us are now undergoing Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI) training to become certified to help people impacted by trauma heal and move forward in a healthy way. In fact, another of our goals is to have every onboarding OGI staff member be TBRI-certified.

The existence of this initiative is in large part due to the Orange County parole officers and lawyers who paved the way for OGI to come in and advocate for these inmates. THANK YOU for supporting us to help these men plan and manage their successful future. The traditional, unstructured practice of releasing prisoners with $200 and no plan has proven to be ineffective, even disastrous. People who have spent years in a correctional institution with no concept of how to live on their own are left to navigate life as we know it with no support, which is why so many return to crime and end up back in prison.

In establishing this program at the Orange County Juvenile Hall, I frequently met with potential students. I asked one inmate what he wanted to do. He answered, “I just want to stay out of prison.” He had no plan and no idea how to formulate one. You and I can make mistakes and grow from them. These guys cannot afford to mess up along the way of learning how to create a life of stability, productivity and satisfaction. I told him at the end of this class, he will feel so different, that when he tells stories of his past, it will seem like it was someone else. For him and his OGI classmates, the transformation has begun.