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STLCC Partners with ARCHS to Give Ex-Offenders a Fresh Start

April 11, 2008

ARCHS graduate Bennie Whalen, right, and Chef Lewis  
Chef Gary Lewis, left, congratulates Bennie
Whalen after completing the ARCHS CARES
Catering program through St. Louis Community

Bennie Whalen had a lot of time to think about where his life was headed. Prison will do that to many.

Whalen spent more than 12 years in federal prison for selling drugs. With a wife and three children to support, Whalen knew he had to change his ways. While incarcerated, Whalen earned his GED, completed a 500-hour drug abuse program as well as anger, stress management, career planning and smoking cessation programs. And he vowed to start anew upon release.

"I knew I wasn’t teaching my children anything by being in prison," said Whalen, now 39. "I hope what I went through will inspire others to make changes."

Whalen was accepted into a new community partnership program designed to help ex-offenders return to the area better equipped to lead productive lives and not return to prison. Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS) received a $1.9 million grant to initiate a Community Action Re-Entry Employment Systems (CARES) partnership program that focuses on helping former prisoners with job skill development, job placement, job retention and increased earnings.

The CARES partnership includes representation from the justice system, community groups, faith-based organizations, education and businesses. St. Louis Community College, through its William J. Harrison Northside Education Center, developed short-term catering and culinary training programs, industries that have high hiring demand.

"Whittling down the front of the house (catering) was not hard because this type of training normally is done on-the-job," said Mike Downey, professor in hospitality studies at STLCC-Forest Park who wrote the curriculum and developed the programs. "I took all of my experience as a chef and a waiter, and put it all together. I tease that this training can take them from Applebee’s to Tony’s."

Whalen recently completed the six-week catering certificate program. Participants learn how to set up and break down rooms for banquet events, and also gain safe serve certification. Gary Lewis, general manager/executive chef at New Northside Family Life and Conference Center, was the instructor.

"This program takes people who have been thrown away and brings them back into the system," Lewis said. "To change a life, it takes teamwork."

Lewis was so taken by the Whalen’s work ethic, unselfishness, punctuality and leadership skills that he offered Whalen a position at the Northside Conference Center. The center has banquet facilities for 500-plus guests and also operates a daycare facility for 200-plus youngsters.
"Bennie was a silent leader, who showed in every instance that 'I want to do this,'" Lewis said. "He knew the coursework, was very goal-oriented, never missed a day and was never late -- all the traits an employer looks for."