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A Good Offense Makes a Great Defense

October 15th, 2011 - By Therese Madden

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Young adults who have spent time in the criminal justice system often face challenges when they try to pick up where they left off. The Mural Arts Restorative Justice Program can make this transition easier for first time offenders by connecting young adults to communities. Participants learn to give back through neighborhood clean up projects. The program also teaches important life skills such as cooking healthy food.


Every Saturday morning, a group of young adults, between the ages of 18-24 gather in a West Philadelphia church for cooking class. “So, this week we are going to be continuing with baking, but we are baking a lasagna.” There’s a focus on healthy food, but it wasn’t a desire to learn to cook this way that has brought the group together. 23-year-old Kareem Henry explains how he got here, “my probation officer put me in this program.”

In fact, all the participants are currently on probation. Faith Beckford is the cooking teacher, she says some of these young adults have been locked up for 5 or 6 years, making it tough to adjust, but she believes this cooking class can make a difference. “Two reasons, a lot them don’t have a good foundation for eating healthily, and number two, to open up the doors for possible new career fields. A lot of them have expressed interest in this field, and the restaurant industry is typically one that would open their doors to young people that have had a record.”

The students are all participants of the Mural Arts Guild Program, a job skills project connected with the Youth Violence Reduction Program. During the week they work in neighborhoods to clean the streets, do some landscaping, and get walls ready for murals. The idea is to have them doing good in a neighborhood where they may have previously done harm. The program is also set up to help with life skills. This is where the weekend cooking class comes in.

Many of these young adults have young kids of their own. So, when they think about meals, it helps to think about budgeting. Faith Beckford again, “one of the first things we talked about was ‘what do you eat? And ‘where do you go to eat?’ A lot of them go to McDonald’s when they are hungry, and how much do they spend? Five dollars, but it gets them a quick meal. So, a lot of the lessons that we’ve done here is try to tailor it to that five dollars. How much can five dollars get them, that’s healthy? That they can prepare very quickly?” Each week they learn to make something different, “we made pizza the second day. We made the dough from scratch, we made the sauce from scratch. And we brought in a box pizza so that they could compare the ingredients that was in the box pizza, versus the one that we made. They were surprised at some of the names that they couldn’t pronounce on box versus what they were making. They all knew what was going into the pizza.”

“I like the pizza that we bought from the store, more than the one we made from scratch,” that’s 23-year-old Kareem. He was in a city prison and has been out for almost a year now. Kareem recognizes that just because he likes the box pizza doesn’t mean that’s what he should eat. “That’s probably what I am used to eating. It’s unhealthy and everything, it has a whole bunch of chemicals, but I think that, that one was so much better.”

But he’s still willing to try to change his eating and cooking habits. In fact, Kareem’s been making food at home for his girlfriend and two young sons. “I tell my girlfriend what we made, and she’ll be like alright let’s try to make something, or I like how that sounds, let’s try to make it. Instead of going to the Chinese store, or get Chinese store chicken grease, and all that.”

A student cuts the peppers for the salad. In addition to learning to cook the food, the class gets to eat it too. They sit around a table, family style. Before digging in, each person shares what they are grateful for.

“I’m thankful for being here. I’m thankful that you all chose lasagna, today. I’m thankful for, I’m just thankful.”

1 Response to A Good Offense Makes a Great Defense

  • Robyn Buseman


    I am the Director of the Restorative Justice program at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. There are a few inaccuracies here, the students are part of the Guild program, a job skills project connected with the Youth Violence Reduction Program. They are young adults 18-24 on probation, they have not necessary been in prison nor have they been released from juvenile detention.

    Thank you.

Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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