When Greg Carpenter was a young man growing up in Augusta, Ga., his father gave him a piece of good advice.
“He said, ‘There are two things people will always do. They will eat and they will wear clothes,’” Carpenter, now 62, says. “If you learn how to do any one of those things—either cook or sew—you will always have a job and you will never go hungry.’”
Carpenter took that to heart and set about learning how to cook, a pastime he truly enjoyed. But at 21, Carpenter committed a serious crime and ended up in prison. It was a huge setback, but he was determined not to let incarceration define him.
“I began working on my bachelor’s degree and then I heard that MCIJ (Maryland Correctional Institution—Jessup) had a culinary program,” Carpenter says. “I thought to myself, ‘A bachelor’s is just a document, but cooking is something tangible.’”
After being released from prison in 1994 after 20 years, Carpenter initially found that landing employment was challenging. He worked odd jobs until he found a “real job” in the kitchen of a motel. From there, he found work in a café at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
All along, Carpenter kept ties with some of the men he met in prison and tried to help those who were released after him. “I knew that what I had experienced coming home, they were going to experience that, too,” he says.
He and friends started RESPECT, a group working with men returning from prison and at-risk youth, focused on workforce development. Carpenter also started working as a mentor/case manager at Episcopal Community Services of Maryland’s Jericho Reentry Program. And while doing all that, Carpenter and colleagues opened a small business, the 2AM Bakery, which sells baked goods made by Carpenter to area restaurants and grocery stores.
With his OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship, Carpenter will start Eye Can Bmore, a program that combines the two things he is most passionate about: cooking and helping those who have been in prison thrive when they return to the community.
Eye Can Bmore will work with up to 30 men, teaching them baking, purchasing, safety and cleanliness, inventory control and other food entrepreneur-related skills. Carpenter and other group leaders also will work with the returning citizens on resume writing and anger management and help them with practical life necessities such as signing up for medical insurance on the state’s health exchange.
“We’re not just teaching them to be food handlers, but to learn operations from a manager’s perspective,” Carpenter says. “Once we teach them the skills, they’ll be able to take them and do whatever they want with them. At the end of six months, we’ll help them find a job or become entrepreneurs, but mostly what we’re giving them is opportunity.”
Carpenter says that cooking and baking are especially rewarding skills for men coming out of prison.
“Once he takes that thing he’s made and sells it and makes money, he can now start to take care of his family,” Carpenter says. “But more importantly, this is something that he’s done with his own hands and his own skills and his own motivation. It builds confidence, respect and integrity, all the things that help them feel good about themselves because they’re making a contribution.”
Carpenter hopes the program will be successful enough to begin working with women returning from prison, as well.
“People talk about second chances but there are not a lot of people who are on board with giving them,” Carpenter says. “These are people who are not asking for a handout but a hand up. And if Lorna Doone and Tastee Cake can do it, I don’t see why we can’t.”