EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part Solutions Journalism series on combating drug addiction. Part I published on Nov. 23.
MANSFIELD -- Tom Pendergast and Ron Tuttle both shared a passion for the culinary world, but struggles with addiction kept them from chasing their dreams.
Now, the two men hope to start a new chapter -- one where those dreams can be realized.
Pendergast and Tuttle will begin their six month training next month at EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, a Cleveland non-profit organization that provides the formerly incarcerated with training and workplace experience in the culinary and hospitality industry.
EDWINS students take classes and work at its family of eateries, which includes a high-end French restaurant, butcher shop and bakery.
There is no charge for students to attend EDWINS -- the institute covers the cost of all classes, uniforms, books and supplies. After the first month, EDWINS provides each student with housing.
EDWINS doesn’t require a minimum education level or past job experience. It also doesn’t ask about a student’s criminal background.
“If you are ready to move forward, work hard, dedicate yourself and adhere to our strict attendance policy, you are welcome at EDWINS,” its website states. “To qualify for the EDWINS program, prospective students are only required to be prompt, sober and display a willingness to learn and work during the interview.”
“A lot of places will ask you about your criminal background, (EDWINS founder Brandon Chrostowski) doesn't ask about that,” Pendergast said. “He don't care about that. He's there to help you move forward with your life, to help you make something of yourself. There's not a lot of people, a lot of places that will help you do that nowadays.”
“This is an opportunity of a lifetime for me. This is something I've been chasing since I was 15 years old.”
Pendergast was born and raised in Upper Sandusky, but his culinary training began as a teenager at Orleans/Niagara BOCES, an alternative school and career technical education center in New York.
“It got to the point when I was younger where my mom couldn't handle me. So she sent me to live with my grandparents for a few years. And that's when my grandparents got me into that school and then got me into vocational schooling,” Pendergast said. “I went there to get my GED and I found out on the other side is where they had career tech programs.”
Tuttle has nearly 25 years of experience in the industry.
“I've always loved the restaurant industry, just like being with the people and seeing someone's face smile because they enjoy what you eat,” he said.
Both Pendergast and Tuttle are finishing up 90-day stays at the Richland County Community Alternative Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center that provides a substitute for incarceration.
Pendergast has battled alcoholism and drug addiction since he was a teenager. He was sent to CAC after he pleaded guilty to aggravated possession of crystal meth.
Tuttle began using heroin 10 years ago after a back surgery.
Tom Trittschuh, Director at CAC, said both men have embraced treatment.
“These two are excellent examples of what can happen in a positive direction,” Trittschuh said. “That's why we do what we do. We all have a passion for trying to help people.
"I've got an excellent treatment staff and even the security staff, they're just compassionate about people and it's just neat to see.”
Pendergast and Tuttle’s journey to EDWINS began during an afternoon art class.
“I was sitting next to Tom and I turned and I said something like, ‘Now what's your passion? What do you want to do the rest of your life?’ " recalled Jayne Stahlke, a retired art teacher who gives weekly classes at CAC. “Without blinking an eye he goes, ‘I want to be a master chef.’”
His answer brought to mind a documentary, Stahlke watched about EDWINS approximately a year ago. She pulled it up on her phone and showed it to him. As soon as the credits rolled, Pendergast was writing a letter asking for an interview.
“He had a four-page letter handwritten by the end of that afternoon. It went out in the mail that day,” Stahlke said. “Then he began to tell Ron about it, and Ron jumped on it and boom, it had a life of its own.”
As CAC’s treatment case manager, Meagan Petty works hard to find housing and job opportunities for clients after they leave. So when Pendergast and Tuttle approached her with an idea, she was immediately impressed.
“They actually came to me with all the information -- the case manager there, when the class starts, I mean these guys figured it out on their own and that really caught my attention,” she said.
A few weeks later, Petty accompanied the two men to their interview in Cleveland. Both were accepted into the December cohort.
“There's so much stereotype behind addiction and criminality and getting to work with these guys toward their future and their goals is just such a fun experience you know it restores our faith in what we do here,” Petty said.
Over the next six months, Pendergast and Tuttle will learn everything there is to know about the restaurant industry -- from cooking and baking to finances and management.
After that, they plan to continue working in the industry. Pendergast hopes to eventually open his own restaurant or catering company.
“To me, this is a blessing and dream come true. I've always wanted that title of chef for so many years. I had never really followed through with it. And now I have the opportunity to do so and I'm, you know, I'm all in,” Pendergast said.
“My mom passed away about a year ago and this is one thing I know my mom wanted to see. It's time for me to do something for myself and also to have a legacy for my kids. And also to make my mom proud of me.”
Tuttle said he’d prefer to work in a more structured environment that would allow him to provide for his family.
“I just want to be able to give back to the community or give back to anybody for the things that I've done, to make amends. That would make me happy,” he said.
“I got a grandbaby just born last year, so I want to be part of her life and be able to provide for her and my children. I got four girls. Most of them are all grown up now, but they're still mine,” he continued. “I want to take care of them and give them what I could never really give them, give them the life that they deserve.”