Nonprofit Relies on Baking to Help Formerly Incarcerated Women

Nov 9, 2017

Debbie, one of the students in House of Bread, prepares scones at the LEAP commercial kitchen in Roanoke.
Credit Jeff Bossert

A new non-profit group in Roanoke seeks to connect formerly incarcerated women with the chance to turn their lives around.  But the founder of House of Bread says the practical experience of baking and selling will only accomplish part of her goal.

The group aims to narrow a gap that exists between populations – and build a community that garners support on both sides. 

Debbie’s problems with drug abuse date back to when she was 16.  Now in her 50’s, she says it took 12 years in prison to get her to where she is today.

“I took the bad days and made them into good days – and that’s how come I made it this far,” she said.

She says the opportunities provided by House of Bread have brought her a sense of self-worth.

“I had to have a different mind frame in order to be sitting here today, selling bread, can look at money, and not want to take it, and go places - do other things with the money, or steal it,” she said.  “That makes me feel good that I can be around money!”

We’re only using first names of Debbie and two other students in the non-profit’s first six-week class.

With the help of volunteers, it’s selling the product in two locations in Roanoke during each six-week class – the City Market building downtown, and in the Grandin Village neighborhood.

House of Bread scones for sale at the City Market Building in downtown Roanoke.
Credit Jeff Bossert

But House of Bread starts each week in a commercial kitchen, baking varieties that range from whole wheat, to chocolate bread, to scones, containing spinach.

“Baking is such a communal activity – it’s a great opportunity learning how to bake, but also, we’re having fun together, shoulder to shoulder,” said co-founder Jen Brothers, who said she’d been search for a way to tie what she calls the “calming experience” of working in a kitchen to deal with high rates of incarceration, drug addiction, and recidivism.

But she adds House of Bread has multiple goals.

“We are not doing this not, - we volunteers, thinking that we have oh, so much to impart – to the women that we are partnering with, but we know they have things to teach us as well,” she said.  “They have a learned a lot about what it takes to carve out a new life.”

Brothers – a longtime counselor currently attending seminary, who also taught leadership for six years at Hollins University -  says she was inspired by a similar group in Alexandria, called ‘Together We Bake.’

Most of the students and volunteers have little to no baking experience, getting all their tips and recipes from House of Bread co-founder Lisa Goad, who bakes a lot at home.

Another co-founder, Jordan Hertz, is in seminary with Brothers, and left a career in teaching help to start the new non-profit.

“It’s all of our full-time jobs these days,” she said.  “The whole point is to unite people around this concept within the Roanoke Valley.”

Rissa, another student, has spent more than half her life behind bars for offenses from ranging from assault and battery to forgery.

“I think, by ourselves, we mess things up, but if we have some positive people whispering in our ear, it’s just the strong support to help us when we have issues to be able to talk about it – I think we make better decisions,” she said.

Rissa’s classmate Karen says she’s more than five years clean after 30 years of drug addiction – and like the others, enjoys picking up new skills.

“I forgot to put brown sugar on the cinnamon bread last night,” she said, while cracking up.  “(That’s) until I was almost done, and went – whoops!  So we took it apart, and put it back together. And they turned out great. So it’s a learning experience.”

Volunteers and students with House of Bread prepare chocolate bread at the LEAP commercial Kitchen in Roanoke.
Credit Jeff Bossert

Both Rissa and Karen also have positions with Transitional Options for Women, another non-profit and kind of halfway house in Roanoke that helped connect them with House of Bread.

“(There’s a) transformation when you have women coming in that have come from a dark past, and now there is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just heartwarming,” said Founder and Director Dorothy Owsley.

With the help of mentors, House of Bread’s first five graduates have successfully tested for Serv Safe Training for jobs in the restaurant industry.  After selling out of bread most every week, they’ll also complete mock interviews before a graduation ceremony on Friday. 

Brothers says these women are welcome to serve as future volunteers or mentors.

“What’s first and foremost on my mind right now, is how do we keep this community going?,” she said.  “How do we, as students – as graduate from the program – how do we hold them, as much they want to still be involved, with the program and with this project?”

The current class – and two more through next spring – are funded with a $20-thousand grant from a local church.

But with the help of bread sales and other donations, House of Bread hopes to secure a fourth class, potentially making it a year-round venture – and one day, a self-supporting one.