ST. LOUIS – From the outside, the St. Vincent Home for Children is quiet and its halls are fairly empty on weekday evenings. But, deep in its basement, the detention center holds an intimate class that changes lives as the students change recipes.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, St. Vincent, at 7401 Florissant Road, hosts the Culinary Hospitality Outreach Program, or C.H.O.P. It’s a course that prepares at-risk teenagers and young adults for jobs in the hospitality industry and for life.
Each C.H.O.P. class takes a small number of students through six weeks of cooking a multitude of recipes, learning to fill out job applications, and practicing other tasks of everyday life.
Shaun Stevenson, a graduate of the class, earned a job at Ballpark Village after completing the course in the spring.
“Everybody cooks in my family, so it’s kind of like a thing. But I wanted to learn more, and the things that they were doing was kind of inspiring,” Stevenson said. “They did not play, and they were on us. When you talked, they’ll tell us to go upstairs or we’re not serious about it, and they’ll try us again the next time.”
The program is only one of many created by Sudden Impact I.C.U., a St. Louis-based organization that focuses on helping children who have been incarcerated or sentenced to juvenile detention centers across the city. The organization was founded by Demetrius Evans, a former inmate who currently works at the St. Louis Family Court.
“I first met Demetrius when he was seven, and in our detention facility,” said Cheryl Campbell, Director of Detention Services for the St. Louis County Family Court. “He ran away from home a lot and just got progressively more involved in things. This was a safe zone for him. We were like his family and kinda raised him. He used to drive us crazy playing the kazoo! He must have been about nine. We were able to provide him with something he wasn’t getting on the outside, and that is also true for our kids today.”
Evans began mentoring at-risk youth at juvenile and detention centers after decades of being in the system himself.
“As a 7-year-old child, it kind of registered another way,” Evans said. “So I started acting out and running away. The first time I ran away, I was actually going to look for a dad. And then, of course, I ran into the streets and just started doing things.”
Evans was in and out of juvenile centers since he was 7 and was charged as an adult for burglary at age 14.
“At this time, it was my 32nd time in juvenile detention centers; they ended up certifying me at 15. When I turned 16, they gave me 20 years [and] sent me to a maximum prison,” he said.
Evans was released from prison in six years, with an associates degree earned during his time incarcerated. He went to college at Central Missouri State for a short period but was soon charged and convicted again for selling marijuana.
“When he got out of prison, the first place he came was back to our lobby. He said, “Hey, I should have listened,” said Campbell.
Even with such monumental obstacles, Evans was released again when he was 33. And this time, he wanted to tell younger people his story, warning them by any means necessary.
“First thing I did when I was out was talk to the kids, tell them a little bit of what I seen, tell them how my life evolved, getting certified from there,” Evans said. “They were sneaking me in until it reached upstairs, and the guy was like, ‘Man, we want this program.’”
Some companies with job opportunities didn’t feel comfortable with Evans’ efforts before Sudden Impact became a nonprofit. Fortunately, Ballpark Village became its home after current Director of Operations Kelby Giles sat in with Evans during a session.
Giles now teaches the C.H.O.P program while also managing the Village, and was present when The NorthSider sat in for the first week’s session.
“[At first] I didn’t believe him, honestly,” Giles said. “He was trying to explain it; I didn’t understand it.
“When he started talking, I was like, ‘Man, you really made a sudden impact on those kids. This is something you should probably do. You should spend more time doing it.’”
Sudden Impact comprises five people who volunteer their time to the program, with most either being current or former employees of Ballpark Village.
“We want to reach them before they get to the detention center, and we want to help them when they get out,” Outreach Director Brittney Murphy said. “These children are in critical points in their lives where all it takes is just a notch or one bad moment for them to turn down the wrong path. We want to create future leaders, and we do that here.”
The C.H.O.P class is only one of many programs Sudden Impact is a part of. The organization participates in a weekly Project Put the Guns Down every Thursday at the St. Louis County Family Court, and also hosts Feed the Youth at Epworth Children and Family Services in Webster Groves.