Remember that scene in Get Hard where Kevin Hart tells Will Ferrell about San Quentin for the first time? If not, here you go!
This post has everything and nothing to do with that at the same time… How? Let me explain: it has everything to do with ‘what they’re doing in San Quentin’, but, has nothing to do with the content described in the scene.
Today, I want to write about one of my role models; a woman who puts herself out in the open with no shame or regret; a woman gives back to her community; a woman who is impacting the lives of talented individuals who would normally be overlooked or passed on because of a label like ‘criminal’ or ‘convict’; a woman who genuinely cares about people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class or any other category that you can think of; a woman who has taught me not to care what others think of you and to just be yourself.
Today, I’m writing about my sister: Lisa Dombroski.
Why? Not just because she’s an all-around athlete and rock star (though she did have an amazing rugby career, making an appearance at the national level), but because of her courage to set off on an amazing adventure without letting others hold her back. I couldn’t be more proud of her for what she has accomplished thus far, and what she can (and will) accomplish in the future.
By now you’re probably asking yourself “Well… what the heck did she do/is she doing?”
Let me tell you:
Last year, Lisa launched a program with the assistance of her employer, The Chef’s Warehouse, and her co-founder (partner-in-crime, if you will) who also sponsors another program at the prison, Helaine Melnitzer, to teach inmates at San Quentin State Prison basic cooking skills so that they could find work upon their release. Nobody asked her to do this, nobody delegated this to her; in fact, she asked her boss if she could start the program and if The Chef’s Warehouse would help sponsor the program to offer equipment and Vegiworks coming onboard to donate fresh ingredients to the program.
And so began the journey of Quentin Cooks!
That’s right, while most people wouldn’t step foot in a state prison (voluntarily, at least), my sister asked to give chef’s knives to inmates in a state prison – not only did she ask for that, she asked to be side-by-side with said inmates while they utilized the knives. That’s Lisa, though; she has no fears – she also believes in people, so, this will be the last time I write the word ‘inmates’ in this post.
On June 9th, 2016, Quentin Cooks commenced its first course (no pun intended) – the 199th program offered at the prison – of teaching cooking and kitchen skills to nine individuals who were soon to be released from San Quentin – and it went off without a hitch! For four hours every Monday morning from early July to mid-October, Lisa made her way to San Quentin to educate her students – incorporating her vast network of chefs, suppliers and colleagues alike who were more than willing to join in to help!
Later in the course, my sister sent an invitation to our family and some of her friends to come experience a Quentin Cooks dinner at the prison. Unfortunately, the stars didn’t align right (and since haven’t either – but one day!) for my wife and I to attend; however, my parents were able to make the trip out there.
[Now, my father works in a jail, so I always hear about the horror stories of what goes on in those places. A few years ago, no matter the conversation we were having, I somehow always got a lecture at the end about something that could ‘wind me up in jail’. A few weeks prior to this extravaganza at San Quentin, he had knee replacement surgery – I can’t imagine the anxiety he had walking into a notorious prison with a bum knee and seeing his first-born daughter next to a knife wielding student twice her size. BUT, I think the experience changed him – one of the main reasons for Lisa starting this endeavor was to give those a chance who are overlooked. My dad no longer talks nonstop about the negative things at work; he recognizes the people in the jail at which he works as just that: people; he treats them with more respect than he did in the past (not to say he wasn’t respectful before, just more-so now), and them, he.]
This event was big. Chef’s Warehouse posted about it on their Facebook page, they sent out a Chef’s Warehouse Magazine writer, Kelli Colaco to document and write about the event – you can read the article here (great read, by the way) – and the prison officials even joined the party!
Many of the individuals from the first course (again, no pun intended) of Quentin Cooks had arranged employment at local restaurants and kitchens prior to their release because of this program. These are guys that have been professionally trained by professional chefs – yes, my sister was a chef for 10 years prior to joining CW – ServSafe Certified and optimistic, energetic, passionate, ready to start again guys who are looking for (and finding) that second chance. Luckily, many, if not all of them, got it and are on their way to a successful cooking career.
Since the big dance in October 2016, Quentin Cooks has gone on to hold two more courses (enough with the puns) – the second in winter/spring of 2017 and the third (now ongoing) summer/fall of 2017, with the latter set to wrap up October 2nd, 2017
This last course, though, something special happened. Not only was it their largest class to date (up to 10 students now), but TWO of Lisa’s former students also asked her to come back to build upon their foundation from their first time around.
This is but one example of a single person making an impact on the lives of many. While it may not be in the realm of hundreds of thousands (at least, not yet!), it’s a difference nonetheless; and it’s making the world a better place, one chef at a time.
I can’t even describe in words how proud I am of Lisa and her partners at Quentin Cooks. Their story is not only inspirational in ways that make me wish I could start something similar to give back in my local community, but it also inspires me to have the courage to take that leap of faith and follow my dreams when they present themselves. I hope that you feel the same way.
So, I ask you: Do you even Dombro?
Clearly my sister, Lisa, does – probably even better than I do. 🙂
If you’d like to learn more about the Quentin Cooks program, donate, lend a hand or help place newly released graduates of the program, please contact Lisa and Helaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos credit of: Kelli Colaco – Chef’s Warehouse Magazine
Logo in post image designed by Jen Humphries