Since 1997, WOW has been helping community members overcome barriers to finding sustainable employment in the culinary field. The organization's training programs teach safety protocols and cooking techniques, and also provide certification and hours of practice.
The Helping Hen is WOW’s newest initiative designed specifically to employ individuals returning to society after being incarcerated. Working with the food truck is a paid internship that allows students who have completed their initial training to gain additional experience while also being able to pay their bills.
Julie Stone, executive director of Work Options for Women, says the nonprofit initially formed in response to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The welfare-reform law mandated that families could only remain on welfare for sixty months, and WOW founders believed that some women — who’d been at-home caregivers — would struggle to find work without the proper skills.
Since then, the organization has helped over 3,200 women and men through training programs that develop occupational skills and instill confidence and life skills needed to navigate the workplace. Additionally, WOW case managers help students overcome long-term barriers to housing, transportation, child care and counseling.
Stone says WOW’s increased focus on supporting those affected by the criminal justice system began in 2017 when the organization received funding from Impact100 to acquire a mobile classroom they could park in front of halfway homes and nonprofits like Aurora’s Second Chance Center, an organization also dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated people. The mobile classroom’s fast-track training gives many halfway-home residents the ability to find sustainable jobs.
Systemic roadblocks contribute to extraordinarily high unemployment rates among formerly incarcerated people. In a 2018 study, Lucius Couloute and Daniel Kopf from the Prison Policy Initiative found that unemployment rate to be over 27 percent. “We also find that unemployment is highest within the first two years of release, suggesting that pre- and post-release employment services are critical in order to reduce recidivism and help incarcerated people quickly integrate back into society,” they write.
Mobile Culinary Classroom and the Helping Hen will lower those numbers. The need to find work quickly is essential, explains Faith Lippe, the Helping Hen’s first intern. Currently residing at a halfway home in Littleton, Lippe says that the $17 per day residents pay for room and board adds up. She knows people who rack up debt while hunting for jobs and believes it creates a catch-22, where many take the first job they can find instead of being able to advance their careers.
The problem has increased during COVID-19, Lippe continues. Residents still need to pay the daily $17 fee during the initial, mandatory two-week isolation. Plus, they don’t have access to library resources to help them hunt for jobs.
So WOW has helped Lippe learn about job search engines, and her case manager sends along ten to fifteen job applications every week. “None of the jobs that I’ve seen have been under $15,” Lippe says. Even more important, the people at WOW have made her feel comfortable and empowered. The program has given her “a fresh start, a reset [and] a purpose,” Lippe continues. “I’m no longer stuck in that category of a dead-end job. There’s so much I can do with cooking.”
“Food service is a lot more than just restaurants,” adds Tessa Houston, the organization's culinary program and special projects manager, listing sectors like hospitals, nursing homes, manufacturing and processing. “There are all kinds of areas that students can go into, and we’re always looking for positions where students can work their way up into supervisory roles.”
Furthermore, WOW offers “lifelong support,” continues Houston. If former students aren’t happy in their current employment, they can always come back to seek new job opportunities through the WOW network.
“Even though my trip to La Vista [Correctional Facility] wasn’t planned — it wasn’t what I wanted — it put me in line to be here,” Lippe adds. “And this puts me in line to do something else.”
Aside from Helping Hen’s signature rotisserie chicken, the truck serves hearty side dishes like mac and cheese, honey cornbread and mashed sweet potatoes, as well as salads, sandwiches and vegan alternatives. Individual plates cost $8 to $12, and whole-chicken meals plus sides run $26 to $27. Customers can also choose to purchase a “Second Helping” for neighbors facing hunger. All proceeds go toward supporting WOW programming.
The Helping Hen will post its locations in the coming weeks; the best way to stay informed is to follow the food truck on Instagram.