- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The women working and learning in the Culinary Arts Program at Passages Women’s Center, a Billings prerelease program for female offenders, proved that life really can be a great big bowl of cherries.

That’s especially true when the inmates have four flats full of donated Flathead cherries before them that need to be pitted and canned to be later baked into cobbler for a September benefit dinner.

“This program teaches you so much more than the mechanics of the kitchen,” said Michelle Jessop, 39, who’s been clean and sober for two years and hopes to land a waitressing job in the Corvallis area after her graduation from the program next month.

“It’s more about who you are. What Megan teaches us is very unique. She gives us space to do our own thing and gives women a backbone. It doesn’t matter that I’m a single mother and an ex-felon with two boys. I can do this.”

“It’s a difficult program,” she added, noting that Megan Jessee, a chef and manager of the Culinary Arts Program, holds the inmates to a high standard. “But the payoff for me is that if somebody tells me they like my food, that’s so cool.”

Earlier this month, about 10 students crowded around the Passages kitchen to can cherries in advance of the September 12 Farm Fork Families fundraiser for Young Families Early Head Start, which has been providing child care for teen parents in Billings for about 25 years.

Students are referred to the culinary program by the nearby Montana Women’s Prison and are all within 24 months of being eligible for release from prison. Jessee’s students receive classroom instruction, gain in-house food service experience and work release in the community as well as job-placement assistance.

After four years running the program, Jessee said only one woman of the 30 or so who have made their way through the program has re-offended. Nearly 80 percent of culinary school graduates find jobs in the industry once they’re released.

“This job is so much fun,” she said. “They might walk in here timid, but after a year they’re smack talking.”

One who’s found work after graduation is Jean-Marie Scharf, who completed the program three months ago and has already received a 50-cent raise as a line cook at Walkers American Grill and Tapas Bar in Billings.

“I got some real responsibility” in the program, she said. “Being a felon doesn’t define me.”

Scharf was one of those chefs-in-training who whipped up some calamari for Gov. Steve Bullock and state legislators during a January visit to the Capitol.

“This program,” she said, “has given us the chance to prove we’ve broken the mold.”

Bernie Mason, a former family and consumer science extension agent and current Gazette food columnist, found a recipe for cobbler that uses raspberry juice instead of water. She prepared a batch before helping students to think about replicating it on a bigger scale in the Passages kitchen.

Before bringing the students downstairs to the kitchen on a recent afternoon, Mason gave them a 30-minute how-to talk on the art of canning.

Jessop, the near-graduate, said the program has helped her develop skills she’ll use outside the restaurant business.

“For people who are willing to work this program,” said Jessop, “this gives them the courage and the ability to do what you’ve got to do to maintain sobriety and independence. This program has allowed me to challenge myself, and it’s showed me my worth.”

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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