Katy Manoff wanted to enroll in culinary school, but life didn't turn out the way she'd planned, the 28-year-old said as she put the final touches on a gingerbread house Monday in the kitchen at the South Lake Tahoe Jail. Sheriff's deputies arrested Manoff years two years ago in connection to a string of burglaries throughout El Dorado County. She'd been in and out of jail before and suffered from a sense of worthlessness, she said. But when she started cooking with the jail's culinary program about a year ago, her outlook changed. “It means the world to me, the accomplishments. I spent so many years fooling around and not accomplishing anything. I didn't believe in myself. My situation became so destitute, I would have given up, but no one here let me do that,” Manoff said.Chief among Manoff's supporters stands instructor and correctional cook supervisor Jeannette Shippee, the woman behind the culinary program that's won multiple awards at the El Dorado County Fair. Any inmate without a history of violent charges and who qualifies for worker status can apply to take Shippee's cooking classes for Lake Tahoe Community College credit. Participants can choose between basic cooking lessons, baking, catering, festive holiday classes and more. Shippee established the program June 24, 2007, the day the Angora Fire started. It was a way to encourage inmates while also teaching them job skills. And sweet treats, like the holiday cinnamon rolls made in memory of Shippee's brother who was murdered in Africa on a Peace Corps mission, can help change the community's perception of the jail. “We're trying — anyway we can — to get into the community in a positive way. I want people to say, when they hear ‘jail,' that they're the ones who make the cinnamon rolls. Not, ‘Oh, those inmates don't deserve anything,'” Shippee said. Shippee said the group donated the $5,000 from this year's cinnamon roll sales to three Live Violence Free families. All proceeds the students raise through their cooking and all the food that the “So Good it's a Crime” catering team whips up goes back to the community. It's a way to celebrate the spirit of Christmas even though the inmates won't be home for the holidays, Shippee said. Shippee, who also teaches at LTCC and holds a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, helps the inmates study for their ServSafe certification. That certificate might open up a job opportunity that otherwise wouldn't exist for them, Shippee said. Shipee scored a 98 percent when she took the test, and she challenges each group of new students to beat her near-perfect grade. “Do I care if they ever cook? No. What I want is to build them up, not knock them down. Give them self-worth so they can start to think of others,” Shippee said. This year Manoff not only tied Shippee's ServSafe score, she also took home two ribbons for her cranberry-orange blondies and oatmeal cookies at the El Dorado County Fair in her hometown, Placerville, Calif. Sending the certification home was one of the best presents she's ever given to her mother, Manoff said. “Jeannette's changed my life, she's encouraged me. She taught me what integrity means. It means to do the right thing no matter what I'm facing. I didn't think I'd win anything. To finally be doing stuff that's making me feel good —I've been struggling with drugs and abuse for a long time,” Manoff said.
Don Mendez graduated from the jail's culinary program about three years ago. Like Manoff, he'd spent years in and out of jail, but this time was different. This time, he had the support of Shippee and the cooking credits behind him. “I love the culinary program. It gave me the opportunity to change my life. I'd been one of those people who'd been in and out of jail constantly, and this gave me some confidence and self-worth. Now I'm the maintenance supervisor of a local hotel, rent a three-bedroom house, have a car and a savings account. All the normal stuff I never cared about before,” Mendez said. Mendez battled a methamphetamine addiction for nearly three decades before he met Shippee. He'd be released from jail, but it was hard to break free from the rut of old relationships and lifestyles. “Part of the big problem with the re-citizenation rate is that they go back to the same environment. They go back to the same people they've been with their whole lives, and they end up doing the same things. You only have to change one thing, and that's everything. You have to break the patterns that you're used to,” Mendez said. Mendez landed a maintenance job at a hotel before working for a brief stint as a cook in a recovery home. Now he's back at the Fantasy Inn where he works as the maintenance supervisor, and he plans to take over the hotel's new kitchen when it opens. Eventually he'd like to open his own restaurant where he could hire other graduates from Shippee's culinary program. Shippee has her own dream. Someday she said she'd like to open a restaurant and small apartment unit adjacent to the jail, a halfway house where inmates could get back on their feet instead of falling into old habits. That dream might be a long way off, but Shippee said there are plans to expand the culinary program to the Placerville Jail. She wants to extend the opportunities for advancement through cooking to other inmates who need it. Mendez, who just celebrated his fourth year of sobriety, said those opportunities can make all the difference. “You know what keeps me motivated and going forward in the right direction? I probably didn't deserve another opportunity, but they saw me and decided to give me a chance. So hopefully they say, ‘We took a chance on Don. We can take a chance on someone else,'” Mendez said.