Lashanda Thompson has never had it easy. A 29-year-old with two kids, one of which she had at age 17, and the other still an infant, she has seen more than her fair share of struggles. Thompson lives in Over the Rhine, named the most dangerous community in America by Neighborhoodscout.com, which calculates crime rates based on data and crime statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department. Thompson never graduated from high school and has yet to earn her general equivalency diploma (GED).
“I have a family of two kids that love me dearly and want to see the best for me,” Thompson said. “I just want to have a good life for my kids.”
Thompson was referred to Venice on Vine, a restaurant and catering business located in the heart of Over the Rhine, the two businesses collectively known as Power Inspires Progress, or PIP. They serve pizza and sandwiches, as well as other food, host live local musicians, put on art exhibits and promote free trade and organic foods. However, the restaurant is most famous for helping others overcome adversity.
The local shop is known for the hope it inspires. This hope comes in the form of employment opportunities for city residents with employment barriers, which can be anything from criminal records to lack of a GED and physical or mental disabilities.
Venice on Vine was Thompson’s answer to her problems.
Those chosen for employment are trained not just in food preparation, but are tutored by local volunteers in subjects including high school math, computer technology, resume building and attending college.
“I’m so glad I was referred to this program,” Thompson said. “Doors have opened and I’ve met a lot of successful people. My journey has begun.”
Ladon Grandison, 38, is one of the many success stories to come out of Venice on Vine. She has two daughters, 11 and 14. She was introduced to Venice on Vine by a women’s work program she was involved in through the local YWCA.
“They have a lot of great connections,” Grandison said of the restaurant.
Grandison started a five-week construction apprenticeship April 12.
“I will have knowledge of construction, how to handle biohazards, basically how to build a building,” Grandison said, beaming. “I’m excited, I can’t wait to paint some walls, slap some concrete down, you know?”
Grandison said knowledge of these opportunities were important.
“The more people know about this job, the more people benefit,” Grandison said. “Citizens out there trying to get jobs, this can help them. If you have a record, a felony, they can help you out.”
Rina Saperstein has been the executive director at Venice on Vine since January 2007. Venice on Vine is a member of Community Shares, a partnership of non-profit organizations focused to strengthen economic equity and a healthy environment in Cincinnati. Saperstein said she heard about the job opening through a listserv.
She was moved to join the restaurant after having seen the issues in the greater Cincinnati area.
“It’s a buyer’s market for jobs, and it’s hard to compete,” Saperstein said. “If you’re not part of the workforce and haven’t been, it gets harder and harder to get into it.”
The problem is compelling for Saperstein.
“In Cincinnati, there have been a huge proportion of people who never graduated high school over many, many years,” Saperstein said. “These are people trying to live, to raise a family and who don’t have the credibility they need to get jobs.”
Saperstein said she is inspired by the program’s progress.
“I believe in the mission and I love the people here,” Saperstein said. “And I do see successes, and that’s what keeps me coming back.”
Six and a half years ago, life looked bleak for Charlotte Ringel. Convicted on 13 counts of aggravated robbery, she faced a 39-year prison sentence. Ringel kept her head up, and was released six years later for good behavior. That was September 2009. Since then, she has already earned the right to be free from parole.
“I’m very blessed,” Ringel said. “I know how to pray.”
And she does not hide from her mistake.
“I don’t mind sharing it,” she said. “It’s a part of my past.”
Upon her release, a man who ran a halfway house and heard of her release, came over to help her install a shower in her bathroom. During his time helping her, he informed her of the opportunities at Venice on Vine. She listened and applied.
“After the third interview, they all chatted, read the police reports and agreed to give me the opportunity,” Ringel said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
And she has not wasted her time. She spends her days outside of the restaurant working at the Findlay Market and for the Over the Rhine Urban Farming Project, while attending job fairs and actively networking. She is also preparing to pick up at Cincinnati State University, having left college after a year and a half. She plans to use the degree and her experience to become a chef and eventually start her own restaurant, which uses produce she will grow in her own personal garden.
“It’s my passion,” she said. “You never know.”
According to the Power Inspires Progress Annual Report for 2009, Venice on Vine had 15 employees graduate into jobs or school during the year. From previous years 13 employees were working, five were in school or training, one had graduated college and one had earned a GED. That amounts to 35 lives changed for the better, not even including those who have yet to get a job but whose time at Venice made that much more of a possibility.
In addition, 31 passed tests for cooking, cleaning and customer service skills; 33 learned to use computers for e-mail and job searching purposes; 26 gained a six to 12 month work history.
Forty-one educational, work-skills, life skills and community building events were held, and in total, 1,060 individual tutoring sessions were held.
Miami University senior Lynsi Woods personally tutored for a number of those sessions. She enjoys tutoring at Venice because the people there are genuinely interested in learning. There is also a sense of personal satisfaction.
“It makes me feel good,” Woods said. “It’s nice that my education could be useful to somebody other than me.”
Woods decided to continue tutoring at Venice during the spring semester.
It has been a long road for Marieo Hill to get to where he is now, working at Venice on Vine. It took him three tries to get the job. He first applied in 2008, but had to move because of his financial situation and inability to afford housing near the restaurant. Eventually he moved back, re-applied and was hired, but got in trouble with the law. The day he was given the job, he went to court and was thrown in prison.
“In the interview I did or said something they must have remembered,” Hill said. “When I got out they called me back and I got the job. I’ve been here five and a half months since. This job is helping me do the things I want to do.”
What he wants to do, like Ringel, is start a restaurant. He cooks exotic dishes for his friends for fun. Hill has learned a lot about health foods over the years and wants to use his restaurant to inform people about healthy eating, and eventually start a food pantry that offers more variety and essential foods.
“A lot of family and friends of mine have become innocent victims of gun crime,” he said.
He has also been homeless at one point in his life and has seen multiple instances of police brutality.
A few years back, Hill’s mother was granted a loan from a bank that went bankrupt just days later. His mother used the check to renovate their house, and three years later the banks came back. Hill was not properly notified and nobody searched the house before the boards began to go up on the doors. He was locked in the house with his dog, and on his birthday, no less. He could not break open the doors and began to panic, which accelerated his respiratory problems. Luckily, his phone was somehow still connected and he was able to call his cousin who came and broke through a boarded window to get him out.
“If I didn’t have a phone, I might have died because of my breathing issues,” Hill said.
Despite all the hardship he has seen, he still believes in Over the Rhine and in himself, in part because of programs like Venice on Vine.
“There are a lot of ignorant people here who don’t give a damn about you, just about themselves,” Hill said. “But for all the ignorance, there’s twice as much compassion. It’s hard for an outsider to understand what it’s like here. After a few years, though, people get used to the ignorance start to see that some days things are all peaceful.”