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'Fresh Start' Program Teaches Men About Culinary Arts and Parenting

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Last Tuesday at Rikers Island, 21 incarcerated men completed "Fresh Start," a unique program that gives its graduates the skills and tools to take big steps toward a better life.

The program is part of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit founded in 1933 that offers a range of services to more than 6,000 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families each year. These services include substance abuse treatment, parenting workshops and job training, among others. Osborne operates programs both inside and outside 12 New York state prisons and Rikers Island.

Fresh Start offers 10 weeks of training in culinary arts, computer literacy and parenting/life skills. This training, along with the support they receive in creating and following their release plan for a full year, helps the men stay drug-free, maintain jobs and deepen connections to their families.

The U.S. unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is 60 percent. For Fresh Start grads, that rate drops to 29 percent at one year after their release. This success prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to cite Fresh Start as a model re-entry program.

Eric Waters, who directs the program for the Osborne Association, said that "the men in the program are highly motivated to get their lives on the right track. They want to succeed and not return to jail -- for themselves, but most importantly, for their families and their children."

Program graduate Felix Rivera said that "Osborne gave me and other participants the opportunity to gain a new future. Therefore, when we get out we will become better, stronger and more successful human beings and accomplish a new meaning in our lives."

Fresh Start takes small groups of men and engages them at several levels: self-examination, relationship building, vocational training and life skills. At graduation, they each received a Food Handler's Certificate that can lead to jobs in the culinary arts. Fresh Start is the longest continually operating jail re-entry program on Rikers Island. From its origins in culinary arts, it has adopted a holistic approach that focuses on the family as a key ingredient of long-term success. The program boasts a high retention rate: 94 percent of participants graduated in 2008-2009.

Alan S. Farrell, New York City Fatherhood Services coordinator, gave the keynote address at the ceremony. He believes Fresh Start enables fathers to play a crucial role in their children's lives, and is concerned that one-third of the city's children are growing up without a father. Fresh Start helps reverse this trend by inspiring incarcerated men to reconnect and deepen connections to the children anxiously awaiting their return.

"The men who complete the program are gaining the skills and discipline needed to successfully return to their homes and communities," said Mr. Farrell. "I want to congratulate all of the graduates as they embark on this new journey. I am confident they will continue to grow in their relationships with their communities, families and themselves."

Rabbi Andy Bachman, senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, offered the invocation. Volunteers from Congregation Beth Elohim, inspired by the transformational nature of Osborne's programs and the people they serve, recently visited Rikers Island to assist in the establishment of children's centers in visiting rooms at two Rikers Island jail facilities.

Osborne's programs benefit New York City and communities all over the state by helping individuals transcend the cycle of incarceration by achieving stability and happiness -- thereby reducing the pain and economic costs of involvement in the criminal "justice" system.

For more information, please visit the Fresh Start website.