CHENNAI: When 16-year-old Ruben* entered the Kelly’s juvenile home after committing a murder in 2017, little did he imagine that he would be baking cookies and cakes in the same premises, two years later. Having mastered the art of baking along with four other inmates, they are all set to sell fresh baked goodies at a kiosk set up inside the juvenile home, from next week.
The idea for the initiative, which is called ‘Bake and Change’, occurred to Manicka Bharathi in 2016 after a series of events. “I established an NGO called Our Shoulders Foundation in 2015 in a move to impart skill-based training. When I was teaching entrepreneurial development skills in the Slum Clearance Board tenements across the city, I came across a lot of crime scenes, particularly committed by the youth,” said Manicka Bharathi. Upon enquiry, he discovered that all of the perpetrators had been inmates of Kelly’s juvenile home at least once, so he decided to bring about a change from the roots.
A juvenile home is a prison for minors who are sentenced for a period of time or detained on a short-term basis while awaiting trial or placement in a long-term care programme. “Here too, we began single-day training, more like counselling, on why they should not commit crimes and how life is, but the issue the inmates raised repeatedly was income and what to do for money. I did not have an answer then,” he said.
“After some brainstorming, I thought that baking could be a nice source of income. For the short time that the inmates are here, they can undergo baking training for 45 days and later go out and work in a bakery. The Directorate of Social Justice authorities too gave me a room in their premises in Purasawalkam at the same premises as the juvenile home, and the training workshop began in 2016,” he said.
In the real world
Manicka Bharathi along with chef B Robin, who previously worked for renowned hotels like ITC Grand Chola, Taj Coromandel and Novotel, imparted training to a group of five inmates for 45 days. To date, they have trained 90 juveniles.
“We have a week-long course for all the inmates, of which, we shortlist five interested people and then teach them for 45 days. The five inmates learn how to bake everything from puffs, pizzas and burgers to cookies, bagels and cakes,” said Robin. But it was in 2019 when Manicka Bharathi realised that they had overlooked an important detail — if the trained inmates were actually getting jobs after being released. “Research revealed that none of them could land a job in a bakery as the owners wouldn’t employ convicts. All of them either relapsed into delinquency or were involved in other jobs like painting or carpentry,” he said.
Manicka Bharathi proposed to set up a kiosk to make the module sustainable. “We are constructing the kiosk inside the premises at the cost of `25,000, so that the trained inmates can work here after they are released. Currently, we have five people aged between 17 and 19 working at the kiosk. The juveniles will earn a stipend, and adults work on a salary basis,” he said.
While the shop will primarily cater to those within the Directorate of Social Justice, even outsiders are welcome at the store. The kiosk will have tea, cookies (normal and butter), puffs, and tea cakes like carrot cake and banana cake. If you pre-order, you can dig into cinnamon rolls, burgers, pizzas and more at a nominal rate.
“My parents have now started respecting me and are taking my opinions into consideration. It feels great to be valued,” said Ruben, when asked on how it feels to be employed for the first time. Since the beginning of this year, these five inmates have been baking cookies and other snacks for the meetings held within the premises, for a nearby court, for a meeting in Secretariat and for a few officers inside the premises who want to bite into fresh cookies and cakes, while having tea.
“I came to the home four times, on the charges of theft and murder. It was impossible for me to not commit a crime, because I had no other source of income. But, when the Our Shoulder Foundation team said that they could transform us into ‘respectable’ people, I gave up crime. It has been four months since I am here and looking at me, other inmates from the home want to join,” said another 17-year-old inmate on the condition of anonymity.
“After this kiosk, we are going to open another branch inside the premises of National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) at Thiruvanmiyur, within the next month. We have a place in Porur,” said Manicka Bharathi. “We are looking for people who could provide another place for us. We will set up a shop which will be very helpful in motivating more inmates to join the training programme,” he said. The inmates also take up bulk orders and party orders or individual orders for cookies and cakes.
For details and orders, call 7373118000*name changed