December 20, 2019
“My mom is crazy, but she’s just crazy because she had to raise six boys by herself,” says Lemont Cousins, 48, while reflecting on his childhood. Cousins grew up in East Baltimore as the oldest of those six boys. He “made a lot of mistakes when [he] was young that cost [him] a lot of time and life,” as he spent “a lot” of years incarcerated until 2011, explains Cousins. Today, he is a husband, father, homeowner and manager at Waterfront Kitchen a restaurant in Baltimore’s Fells Point. He graciously credits who he is today to Living Classrooms’ Project SERVE program.
Cousins’ pre-incarceration profile is typical for those who enroll in Project SERVE; participants are typically from East Baltimore neighborhoods characterized by crime and violence who also generally experience poverty and involvement in drug culture, and many of whom have served time in jail.
Many of the program participants attribute their success to Living Classrooms’ unique model of assisting returning citizens with their assimilation back into society. Project SERVE (Service, Empowerment, Revitalization, Volunteerism, Employment Training) is a major community service and job-training initiative that serves as many as 150 unemployed and disadvantaged adults per year. The major goals of SERVE are to decrease the overall crime rate in Baltimore City by decreasing recidivism rates, positively impact communities with direct services, and provide workforce development by increasing education and marketable skills for unemployed adults. At only 9%, Project SERVE’s recidivism rate is significantly lower than the Baltimore City average of 52%.
Re-entry into the workforce, let alone coping with everyday social settings, for those leaving incarceration is extremely difficult. When Cousins was released from prison, he promised his grandmother that he wouldn’t get into trouble anymore. He applied for a variety of jobs throughout the city while living in a halfway house but didn’t get a response from a single employer. While he was searching for jobs, he was also calling Project SERVE every day just to keep his options open. Once he officially enrolled, Cousins says he realized Project SERVE was “the only thing that gave me a real chance.”
Cousins’ daily routine as part of Project SERVE’s neighborhood stabilization team, consisted of cleaning up abandoned lots throughout much of East Baltimore, picking up trash, and doing basic landscaping. As basic as these tasks may seem to others, Cousins noted that before this program he didn’t even know how to work a weed whacker. This experience was so valuable to Cousins because it taught him the meaning of wearing a uniform, showing up to work on time, and being accountable for something other than himself. He admitted, “Of course no one likes working in the cold, but you learn to adapt to it. It’s not as bad once you’re out there.”
After five months of working with Project SERVE, Cousins received an entry-level job at Waterfront Kitchen. Located inside Living Classrooms’ headquarters, Waterfront Kitchen has been a longtime supporter of the Foundation’s workforce development and re-entry initiative and is one of the few businesses in Baltimore that welcomes returning citizens, hiring a number of Project SERVE graduates over the years; Cousins swears, “95% of the staff” is from Project SERVE just like him. He points out that of course his first priority in accepting a job out of Project SERVE was for money, but the job has done more than pay the bills for him—it has had a meaningful impact on his life: “Doing good things has its rewards. Everything good happened to me because of Project SERVE. My people skills got better, I got married, had a kid, bought a house. Just one good thing happened, and it continues to happen.”
Cousins was recently promoted into management at Waterfront Kitchen, so it may come as no surprise that he is seen as a role model there. But more than that, he is also adopting that attitude with other members of Project SERVE. He continues to engage with others who have enrolled in the program and always tells them not to give up. His number one piece of advice to those in Project SERVE and those who are on a path that may lead them to incarceration is to stay focused and not lose sight of your goal. Project SERVE is a program that not only offers the education one needs, but also the support group one needs in these situations. To surround yourself with people who have the same goal as you is key, Cousins says. Though “not everybody gets it,” Cousins recommends Project SERVE to people “every day” because of “what the program has done for me, especially for being from where I’m from.”
Cousins says his goal for the future is to own his own restaurant. Even though he doesn’t know how to cook, he says he loves the business of it. “I’m not done because I haven’t reached my goal yet,” he says.
Project SERVE gives its participants the skills, education, and confidence to re-enter society post-incarceration. Lemont Cousins says, “Project SERVE was the best experience. If not for Project SERVE, I really don’t know where I would be at this specific stage in my life right now. I’m doing pretty good for myself. I’m stable. I can go to bed with a smile on my face.”