“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”

— Mother Teresa

It's a long way from Hong Kong, China, to the Michael Becker Correction Facility. Dr. Tim McDonald has traveled that route along with many other winding career paths. His present position is the Programs Director at the Clark County Sheriff's Department.

Longtime News and Tribune readers will remember Tim McDonald as a former fellow columnist for this newspaper in addition to being an educator and business entrepreneur. Next week, there will be a rollout of a new culinary arts program for female inmates at the Clark County jail. I recently sat down for a roundtable discussion with the eight female inmates who have been chosen as the inaugural class.

Any study of recovering addicts will include a couple of factors that are common to successful recovery. A change of physical environment and a separation from the people with whom you formally associated is key, as is finding and maintaining a regular job. Possibly the single most determining factor, from my experience and that of professionals I trust, is simply the addict wanting to change.

Spending time with the eight future chefs, the talk of self-betterment and wanting a new and better life was the most common theme. I verbalized what every one of them know much more personally than I do. The first job after being incarcerated and convicted of a felony drug offense will be among the hardest challenges an ex-addict or an ex-felon will ever face. The Culinary 101 class that will be starting the first week of August is the first step of that journey for the grateful eight.

As one inmate said, she had learned that a new path in life required “that you put yourself first!” The opportunity that was presented made her aware of her current situation; “Do you want this to be your life?” she asked herself. She decided to take the first step in being one of the 35 inmates who filled out a form expressing interest.

Another inmate, who I have known to be in the system for almost as long as my decade-old career path in the corrections field, relayed how she had always been either afraid or unmotivated to take the leap into any opportunities. Having dropped out of high school as a sophomore, her most recent of many arrests has found her about 10 months into the current incarceration. She was proud to tell me she recently completed her G.E.D. “In the past I wouldn't have taken advantage of this opportunity.” The recent educational accomplishment has now emboldened her to obtain other life improvement skills.

Director McDonald had a plan to seek out the right candidates that included a scientifically based Emotional Intelligence Appraisal scoring guide and seeking the expertise of longtime corrections officer Cecilia Thomas, who had worked with and personally knew many of the inmates. Several of the ladies credited Officer Thomas with counseling them to not only develop a plan in life, but also to actually write down the steps required to do that. Another longtime corrections officer who recently retired was Lana Umbarger, who for the last 10 years I have been associated with the jail was affectionately known among the inmates as “mom.” It was unanimous among the group these two exceptional corrections professionals were cited as a source of encouragement and inspiration to change their lives.

It was ladies with a well-thought-out plan, not only for a career goal, but equally as important to have a long-term plan to stay on the path to recovery, including follow-up treatment and counseling.

There was much gratitude among the group that some new training was being offered for women. As one expressed, “I want to thank the Doc and the Sheriff. I am surprised at this program not being just another 'good old boys club.'” In the past only male inmates were allowed trustee positions, which would often help them develop employment skills and work ethic, and in some cases specialized training and/or certifications.

The approximately 12 week training program will mean different things to the group on a personal level. One lady who has former experience working in the kitchen and as a server wants advanced study because, “I want to do more on the management level.” Another added, “I like cooking a lot. I think it's a way to express yourself.”

My favorite response when I asked how many already had cooking skills was, “Yes, I can cook to get by. But if you want me to fry chicken, I will get a deep fryer and it's done when it's floating to the top!”

McDonald is reaching out to the restaurant community for support and to help secure employment opportunities for the group. His next plan is to work on a general re-entry program to aid inmates in a smoother transition from jail life. Other programs are also in the planning stages, with the ultimate goal of offering inmates the opportunity to leave incarceration better prepared for life than when they were booked in. Every inmate who doesn't return to jail is not only a direct cost saving for the county, but also a betterment to the community-at-large.

It is easy to write off the startup program as only eight people and question how much of a dent that makes in the problem. I left the ladies with one last question. If each of you were not in jail today, clean and sober and gainfully employed, how many people very close to you would have lives immediately directly affected in a positive way. As they mentally counted their closest loved ones that quick answer was 96. And as McDonald added, “And if each one of them as a result were able to affect 10 other people positively, that would be 1,000 people.”

I am reminded of Mother Teresa once quoted as saying, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”

Another side benefit one of them pointed out was the rules in place for the cooking students to follow for them to stay in the program. “It gives us an incentive to be on our best behavior.” Or as simply put another way, “It's something to lose!”

I think what the program already has accomplished even before it has begun was best expressed by one inmate in the group: “It's easy to be down in here. It's just as easy to be torn down. To be picked and selected — that's a sense of pride and achievement.”

I am already benefiting just being peripherally associated with them. One of the ladies invited me to share the feast at the graduation dinner!

— Lindon Dodd is a freelance writer who can be reached at lindon.dodd@hotmail.com.