It’s been four years since Just Bakery took in its first group of students, and since then, director Carmella Glenn said she’s seen more than 200 success stories come through the kitchen.

Many of the students she mentored through Just Bakery’s commercial baking program came in with serious barriers to finding employment. Some were homeless. Some were recovering drug addicts. Many had criminal histories and spent time in jail or prison.

But that’s what Just Bakery is about. It’s a fresh start for people to commit themselves to learning a skill that will help them break down some of the barriers they face.

Through the program, which is a part of Madison Area Urban Ministry, participants don’t just learn how to make a few dozen cookies. They learn to bake on a commercial level by filling orders for thousands of cookies, cinnamon rolls, pies and other treats that are bought by and sold at area churches and businesses, including UW Health, which orders about 4,000 cookies each week, Glenn said.

The program isn’t just about slinging dough and cutting cookies. Participants learn the math and chemistry involved with large-scale baking from instructors like Jaclyn Eitrem. Students also receive one-on-one case management sessions. Staff also help students find jobs, prepare them for interviews and motivate them to put their best qualities on display.

“You can hear someone tell you something over and over again, but to actually get in and learn these skills and take out and utilize and sell yourself with them, that’s so important,” Eitrem said.

It costs about $3,500 to put each student through Just Bakery’s program, Glenn said, but funding from Madison, Dane County and the United Way covers that cost.

Just Bakery moved into its Far East Side location at 1708 Thierer Road earlier this year. The new kitchen gives the program a more stable environment with more consistent access to the kitchen than the rent-by-the-hour kitchen the program worked at before.

The Just Bakery staff doesn’t pretend like life is going to be easy for each of their participants. They know that housing insecurity and a history of incarceration place major roadblocks moving forward. That’s why well-rounded training and food-safety certifications are offered through the program. Applicants from Just Bakery are ready to work in commercial bakeries with little additional training required.

“Having the experience, having the certification makes it harder for an employer to ignore your application,” Eitrem said.

Annie Christian is one of Just Bakery’s successful participants. She came to the program on a recommendation from her parole officer. She had gotten out of prison after serving time for her role in a series of robberies, and she was looking to turn her life around.

But as she was getting ready to take her food-safety certification test through ServSafe, she relapsed on heroine. Christian didn’t let that stop her from getting back on track. After getting clean once again, Christian called Glenn, who re-enrolled Christian without hesitation.

Now, Christian, 32, says she feels better than she ever has in her adult life. She finally completed the program, she’s about eight months sober, and she’s now a paid commercial baker at Just Bakery.

Christian is one of about 100 participants to complete the full three-month — formerly four-month — program.

But Glenn doesn’t only see the graduates as success stories for the program.

The students are at the kitchen or in the classroom for 30 hours over 12 weeks, and while they aren’t paying tuition, they also aren’t getting paid. The staff encourages and helps students seek other employment while they are in the program, but sometimes those schedules overlap. Many students have had to drop out to maintain their jobs.

That’s not a bad thing, Glenn said. She considers those students success stories as well because they accomplished what the program hopes for them — they secured employment despite the marks against them.

Although 100 actually graduated, Glenn says more than double that successfully completed the program.

Sometimes it isn’t work that gets in the way of completing the program, though. Since many of the program’s participants struggle with drug addiction, relapses have blocked some students from coming to class, as it did for Christian.

“Our equipment’s big. If you aren’t right (sober), you could get hurt. You could hurt someone else,” Eitrem said. “A lot of our students are recovering, too, so it’s disrespectful to them to have someone under the influence coming into class. They can smell the alcohol or something and that could be a trigger. Then it’s not a safe environment for them.”

But a relapse doesn’t have to end a person’s relationship with Just Bakery, Glenn said. Anyone can come back to the program when they are ready, she said. Christian stands as an example for that.

Glenn “went through a lot of stuff with me, with my addiction and getting clean again,” Christian said. “I call her a motivator.”

Glenn said she is passionate about working with her students because she doesn’t see their struggles as an outsider. She grew up with family members in and out of jail or prison. She even spent time in jail herself after being pulled over for drunken driving. It was through turning herself around and seeing family do the same that Glenn realized she wanted to empower more people who went through similar experiences

“I realized the system’s broken, but the people aren’t,” Glenn said.

It isn’t only Just Bakery and Madison Area Urban Ministry promoting the idea of re-integration after incarceration. Just Bakery is working on a partnership with Madison Area Technical College to create a pathway to enroll in the school.

The current plan is that Just Bakery will modify its lessons to become accredited by the National Restaurant Association, and the college will transfer 11 credits of prior learning to a student’s degree.

MATC’s Paul Short of the culinary arts program and Suzanne Daly of the baking and decorative arts program confirmed the upcoming partnership, although Daly said the baking agreement was still in the preliminary stages.

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Shelley K. Mesch is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She earned a degree in journalism from DePaul University.