How big is Cleveland's heart?

Special for Fresh Water by Brandon Chrostowski,  founder, president, and CEO of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute in Cleveland.

Our city is riding high on a crest of significant achievements and a new wave of national recognition and acclaim. Cleveland is hot. The Cavaliers are the champions of professional basketball and the Indians have taken the Central Division of the American League. We just hosted a major political party's presidential nominating convention. Downtown is alive with culture, culinary gems, and late-night crowds.

There is pride and optimism in Cleveland and we justifiably hold our heads up high. Now the question is, as we pound our chests: can we change our city’s outlook?

Many Clevelanders can quote the scores of the recent NBA championship games. But few – especially now at this time of self-congratulation – know the real score affecting Cleveland. A February 2016 article in The New York Times states that, “A new report by the Economic Innovation Group … found that a number of cities in the old industrial heartland are still among the worst even as surrounding areas have improved markedly.”

Per the article, Cleveland led all other cities, such as Detroit, Newark, Buffalo, and Memphis with a shocking “Distress Score” of 99.9 percent. This deplorable tally is based on a combination of socio-economic factors including our 36 percent poverty rate, 53 percent unemployment rate among adults, and 23 percent of adults lacking a high school degree. Ironically, there was also a steady decline (3.3 percent) in the number of new businesses opening in the area between 2010 and 2013. Cleveland's teams may be winning, but the city remains in deep social distress.

Our sport franchises and corporate centers have given our business structure a higher level of hard currency. We know what a championship looks and feel like. But what does a comeback in our inner cities look like?

I can tell you what it looks and feels like when we win from within. EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, which I founded in 2007, has been quietly growing into a nationally-heralded “second chance” agency for former convicts who have served their time and are re-entering society with faith, dignity, and creative work.

We are making winners in Cleveland out of people who have been anonymously losing for years. Our business is human life and our scorecard is somebody’s next meal.

The completion of EDWINS Second Chance Life Skills Center in Buckeye is the moral equivalent of all of Cleveland’s great stadiums combined. And it took just over a year to develop. This is a major step in our re-entry program, with a three-building campus intended to provide lodging for worthy students, many of whom would otherwise be homeless. That is what winning inside of our community looks like and is made possible when a small group of committed individuals focus on a goal.

Relying entirely on its staff of hard-working and earnest servers, hosts, and culinary artists, all formerly incarcerated, EDWINS has earned national respect and significant financial support. Each one of our students/workers is potentially a Jim Brown of social justice and American values. We have no designated “sport seasons” and none of the glamour of Playhouse Square. We are an all-the-time, year-round venture in renewal.

Our “players” have each accepted the challenge and privilege of gaining a craft and a new purpose in life. Our “Playbill” is an acclaimed, well-awarded menu that serves hope – and classic French food. We are a not-for-profit institute; our business is creating self-respecting men and women who would have otherwise been thrown out like scraps. We are serving a soul-enriching (and delicious) bill of fare across which all Americans are nourished.

As I was working at the Buckeye facility, I was asked: “How far can this project go?” My response was simple: “It depends on how big Cleveland’s heart is.” And I think to myself: if we can draw such large crowds, such support and exuberance in our sports franchises – to the point where our hearts are beating ecstatically over the financial success of these corporations, why can’t we apply our hearts to simply helping humanity? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often affirmed: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

I was developing my own culinary skills and creating EDWINS while in New York a few years ago. I chose Cleveland as its home because of its abysmal high school graduation rates, lack of vision and progress combined with my concerns for the fair rehabilitation of newly released prisoners. I believed that there were a lot of hearts in this city broken with defeat, despair, no options and general inequality as citizens.

It occurred to me that even the remarkable Cleveland Clinic could not do for human hearts what education, compassion, and a real second chance can accomplish.

We have come far in only a few years. Building a restaurant, school, campus and programs in prison are the tangible examples of what our hearts are now saying. This is just the beginning of what the 150 hearts of our graduates, the 100 hearts of donors and our staff have done. There aren’t four seasons in the human heart, but just one: the season of compassion and righteous deeds.

There are nearly 400,000 hearts in Cleveland. We have a lot more to accomplish in order to build a truly championship community - but just imagine the possibilities.

I believe we can still reach the 52,000 men and women incarcerated in Ohio and create pride in their hearts despite their bodies being confined to a place that can be treacherous and difficult to dream in. I believe we can inspire the 400,000 men and women in Cleveland and instill a hope that we can overcome our status quo.

We have already transformed many hearts of people who made mistakes, committed crimes, but now just want a chance to apply their renewed heart and a productive mind in the workforce of this nation.

Our city is ready for more than trophies.