Ex-felons find way to cook up a new career

Rebecca Kelly-Manders, founded the REfire culinary program three years ago, works with Gabriel Tunnage-Cooper during a recent class.

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

A passion to give back has driven Rebecca Kelly-Manders to developing one of the most popular programs for people who spent time behind bars.

With two felony convictions in her background, Kelly-Manders was relentless in her effort to start a culinary program that she calls REfire. It gives formerly incarcerated individuals an opportunity to become chefs.

“I was given grace when there was no reason for me to have gotten it,” said Kelly-Menders, who began her own journey to recovery in 1997. “I was given a lot of opportunities to move away from my past.”

Two theft charges resulted in eight years of probation, Kelly-Manders said, suggesting that being a White female might have been the reason she got probation. Now she feels compel to pay it forward, she said.

 “If I don’t try to work to be a positive for anybody who got themselves in the same kind of situation that I was in,” she said, “then I’m wasting that grace that was given me.”

Kelly-Manders learned to cook by working her way up on jobs from prepping in a pizza joint and other restaurants. She gained her most experience at an Olive Garden restaurant in Fort Walton before moving to Tallahassee.

She also operated a food truck – all while trying to secure funding for the idea she had about helping others. She took the idea to Lucretia Collins, director at Ready4Work, hoping to get funding.

William Brooks begin to rinse pans to prepare lunch as part of his training in the REfire culinary program.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

That didn’t pan out but it didn’t stop her from turning to other non-profits for assistance. Meanwhile, Collins decided that when the program got off the ground it would be a good addition for clients of her re-entry program.

Kelly-Manders landed the chance she wanted in the kitchen at the family shelter Hope Community.

She’s since also gotten funding from Career Source to help fuel the program that she said is helping people “grab their lives back.”

Gabriel Tunnage-Cooper, who is in the halfway house stage of his reentry, is a beneficiary of the program.

“This is all new to me to learn different ways of protecting myself from food borne illnesses and cooking food with the right temperature,” he said.

Tunnage-Cooper was one of two students in a recent class. Their day started with a classroom session before they moved into the kitchen, where they helped to prepare lunch for the Hope Community residents.

There is plenty of professional cooking apparatus in the kitchen from a deep fryer to a tilt skillet that can prepare as much as 25-pounds of meat at a time. They also have a stove and a flat top in addition to giant size stand up coolers.

Kelly-Manders, who started the culinary program in 2017 after joining up with Big Bend Homeless Coalition, uses a cook book in the classroom that teaches more about the culinary form than actually cooking a recipe. For instance, she explained how to properly cook an egg and they also learn about the difference between herbs and spices.

Each session runs eight weeks. Kelly-Manders will graduate another class on March 6. By then, most of them hope to earn a ServSafe certificate for getting a job. 

Most of the clients from the Ready4Work program have gone on to get good-paying jobs at places like the Edison, said Collins. Kelly Manders offered more proof that the program is working, noting that less than 10 percent of participants have returned to prison.

That is quite an accomplishment considering that recidivism in Leon County is about 30 percent. However, the rate of those who don’t complete the course and usually return to prison is at 65 percent. On the upside, 85 percent of graduates usually find work within 90 days of graduation, she said.

 William Brooks is one of the participants scheduled to graduate next month. However, he said the first few weeks of being around more experience cooks were intimidating.

“The other guys they’ve been working in restaurants and they know what to do,” he said. “I didn’t know how to go at it like that because I never worked in a restaurant before. So I just sat back and watch them.

“The more I come, the more I learned.”