When Deeion Sandlin thinks back to her childhood, she remembers her mother’s lasagna.
She remembers helping her mother in the kitchen. She remembers her seven-year-old self sitting at the dining table, looking up at her older siblings. She remembers the room being loud, everyone talking.
“But then as soon as you take a bite everybody’s quiet, you know? Because the lasagna is so good,” she said. “It just reminds me of home.”
Food was a big part of her upbringing. Her mom has an associate’s degree in culinary arts. Her grandmother often cooked for the family too, Southern-style meals like fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
Now she’s reconnecting with those roots through the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Chopping for Change program. The program allows women incarcerated at the Northeast Reintegration Center and men incarcerated at Grafton Correctional Institution, both minimum-security prisons, to earn a culinary certificate six months into the program, a hospitality diploma at nine months, and an associate’s degree of applied science in culinary arts if they stay in the program 18 months.
On Tuesday, Sandlin was one of five women competing against the men from Grafton in the Chopped4Change event as part of Cuyahoga County’s reentry week. The week of events highlights programs that help people reintegrate into their communities after completing prison sentences. Some of the events also highlight the barriers that still exist in reentry.
Chopped4Change is modeled on the popular cooking show Chopped. The teams, led by head chefs, had 30 minutes to make an appetizer, 90 minutes to prepare an entrée, and 30 minutes to create a dessert. The head chefs revealed ingredients in a refrigerator just before the timers started.
Chicken, apple cider, wild ramps and creamed corn
The women huddled like a basketball team at courtside – the chef their coach with a clipboard in hand – to plan their appetizer. The men immediately started chopping ingredients, figuring it out with instructions and guidance from their chef as they worked.
Sandlin admitted she was nervous as she sliced apples for a coleslaw.
Thirty minutes later, the women presented wonton crisps with sesame seeds stacked with a jicama, apple and Asian pear slaw tossed in an orange and red currants vinaigrette and topped with sautéed seasoned shrimp. The appetizer was sweet and savory, with a lot of crunch from the wonton and the slaw.
The men presented the judges with a wonton cup filled with shrimp escabeche and a jicama creme with currant pearls. At first bite, juice dripped from the wonton and ran down the hand.
The ingredients for the entrées: Chicken, apple cider, wild ramps and creamed corn.
The women made a griddle cake with the ramps and creamed corn. They shredded the chicken, combined it with an apple cider barbeque sauce, and piled it atop the griddle cake.
The men made a charred ramp chicken nugget with creamed corn and fresh ramp polenta with apple cider sauce.
In the dessert round, the women made a syrup with Shasta ginger ale and black garlic to drizzle over a pandowdy (like a cobbler) when it came out of the oven; they served a ginger ale whipped cream on the side. The men made a cream puff with a Honey Bun whipped cream. They added a black garlic, Shasta and rhubarb foam.
‘They treat us like regular people.’
The judges – including local chefs and Ward 10 Council Member Anthony Hairston, whose ward includes the Chopping for Change kitchen location – looked at creativity, taste and presentation.
The men’s team won in the appetizer and dessert courses, winning the entire competition.
That didn’t surprise Vondell Miller, one of the members of the men’s team.
“[I was] nervous at first,” Miller said. “But then when we started and got into it, and it just came natural.”
Miller said the competition was a fun back-and-forth with the women’s team.
“We knew we had it,” he said.
Miller was arrested in August 2022 on drug trafficking charges. He’s about halfway through his 21-month sentence. Once he’s released, Miller said, he would like to open his own restaurant or food truck and use the skills he’s learning in the program to make seafood, steak and wings for people.
He was the main cook for his household but had not cooked in a professional kitchen until now.
The culinary program has given him something to look forward to every day.
“They treat us like regular people,” he said. “That’s why we like the program.”
‘They want to do well. They want to succeed.’
Since the Chopping for Change program started in 2016, more than 250 people have earned culinary certificates. Fewer than 3% of participants have been arrested again since their release from prison. Statewide, the average recidivism rate is about 18% for women and about 30% for men, said Ian Marks, vice president of workforce development for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry.
Participants make more than 1,000 meals a day to feed people at six area shelters. They also prepare food for the Metro 45 food truck, which brings in revenue to maintain the training program.
Participants start with a therapy program to better understand how their past traumas have affected the choices they’ve made. Addressing traumas, substance use disorder and other mental health issues before starting the skill-building part of the program boosts success in the culinary skills program, Marks said.
Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry partners with The Marble Room and LockKeepers to employ participants on work release. Morgan Doyne, senior sous chef at The Marble Room, said he enjoys working with Chopping for Change participants. The restaurant currently employs two cooks who are finishing their prison sentences.
“They want to do well,” Doyne said. “They want to succeed. They’ve done their time, so to speak, and don’t want to return.”
The executive chef has hired about 90% of participants after they’re released, though some have moved on to different jobs over the years.
Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry also hires participants as employees in the kitchen. Jasmine Purifoy is one of those employees. On Monday afternoon, she cooked shrimp for the staff while waiting for tomatoes to finish roasting for the Metro 45 food truck.
Purifoy works mostly on food prep for the food truck while finishing her sentence. She’s completing one more class to get her associate’s degree in July.
‘I have to learn to forgive myself.’
Lana Mendis graduated from Chopping for Change in 2019 and was released from prison a few months later.
Since then, she has worked as an employment specialist for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries and for Towards Employment, an organization that helps people find jobs. Now she’s the Leadership Administration Coordinator at JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national organization that advocates for policy changes to provide opportunities for people who are incarcerated.
In her current role, Mendis does a lot of behind-the-scenes planning work and travels with the organization’s leadership team. She is currently earning a master’s degree in organizational management leadership.
Before she was arrested, Mendis had a 20-year career as a stock broker, working for companies such as Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney.
After a difficult divorce, she left her career in stocks and bonds. Suddenly a single mother of three, she struggled to pay bills and find childcare so she could work. Her jeweler hired her part-time.
Her car got repossessed. She lost her house. There were days she didn’t eat, she said. In a moment of desperation, Mendis took some jewelry and pawned it. She spent three and a half years in prison and didn’t see her children at all.
“I not only hurt myself, I hurt my children,” she said. “I hurt people who cared about me, my family.”
The trauma-informed therapy part of the culinary program was life-changing for Mendis. She said it helped her address and understand how past traumas influenced the decisions that led to her arrest. She also learned to process the guilt she felt from leaving her children.
“I have to learn to forgive myself, and that’s why I always revert back to those trauma courses,” Mendis said. “Because I need to remind myself that I can’t keep beating myself up over the past.”
Cooking was also therapeutic. Her children, now all adults, send her a menu of meals they want her to cook for them. She’s also working on opening her own restaurant.
“It’s fulfilling,” she said. “And I wish there were a way I could do advocacy and food together.”
‘I’m very lucky … to have this second chance.’
Deeion Sandlin is serving a five-year sentence after being arrested for drug trafficking in 2021. When she was 18, Sandlin moved away from home after getting a job doing bottle service at a club in Dayton. There, she started using drugs, and eventually she began selling drugs to support her addiction.
After her home was raided and her fiance was arrested on similar charges, Sandlin started her sobriety. She reached out to her mom and told her there was a warrant for her arrest. Her mom and two siblings drove to Dayton to help Sandlin pack up her things and store them at her mom’s house. Sandlin later turned herself in.
Her addiction had led her to push her family away.
“I felt so ashamed. I didn’t want them to see where I was going. Because I knew it was wrong, and I felt guilty,” Sandlin said. “But I was also too ashamed to ask for help.”
Now, Sandlin has found a support system in her family and a second support system in the Chopping for Change program.
“I think I’m very lucky to be alive and to have this second chance to change my life,” she said.
She talks with her mom often, and they bond over the skills she’s learning in the culinary program.
“It’s definitely brought us closer,” Sandlin said.
Her release date is in September 2026.
In the meantime, she plans to earn her associate’s in culinary arts from the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s program.
“I know I’m making my family proud,” Sandlin said. “We got our chef jackets last month, and my mom cried.”