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Instilling Change: Gemel Smith-Tolbert

In a complex world, one thing will always remain a commonality among everyone - food. According to chef Marc Marrone, “food is a universal language that people from any part of the world can relate to or enjoy.” Whether it be on the South Side of Chicago, in prison, or Kansas City, everyone must eat to survive. No matter where he has been, Second Chance program graduate Gemel Smith-Tolbert has always found his purpose through creating food for others and creating meaningful connections along the way. Prior to incarceration, Gemel lived on the South Side of Chicago. When Gemel was a young teenager, he joined one of the local gangs. As he got older, Gemel knew he needed to focus his energy on his younger siblings. He knew how important it was to provide for them in their primal years, so he left the gang to focus on his home life. This is where Gemel’s love for helping and serving those around him began. Unfortunately, poor decisions landed Gemel in the justice system. During his fourteen years of incarceration, Gemel spent eight years working in the kitchen. As a cook, Gemel wanted to provide meals that were done with the best of his abilities so he could give his fellow inmates something to look forward to. According to Gemel, “you don’t have a lot to look forward to in prison, but if you have a decent meal, people are going to be a bit more satisfied.” Not even a month out of incarceration, Gemel enrolled in the Second Chance program after he received a referral from his Parole Officer. When Gemel came to Kansas City from Illinois, he didn’t have any sort of identification besides his prison ID, which led to employment barriers. Through Second Chance, he was able to reinstate his driver’s license and obtain his social security card. Once those documents were secured, Second Chance was able to assist with job placement and retention. To Gemel, the most important aspect of Second Chance was the welcoming environment. “Second Chance showed me that people actually care about my future and other individuals who have been incarcerated.” Gemel is also thankful for his transparent relationship with his Parole Officer who has been there to answer questions and provide support along the way. When asked what advice he would offer to others in a similar situation, Gemel said to not give up no matter the circumstance. “Remember, every day is going to be a struggle, but keep ten toes down and keep running. You won’t be stuck in the situation forever, and if you are, do what’s right. You have to put in the work yourself and everything will fall into place.” Gemel has successfully graduated the Second Chance program as of January 2020. He has also successfully completed Pathway to Change and has paid off some of his past debts. Gemel has continued his love for cooking at his job at Char Bar. Gemel enjoys contributing to the Kansas City barbecue scene as the lead char cook. It is obvious that no matter where life takes him, Gemel will always be focused on serving those surrounding him. We are very proud of Gemel’s determination to better himself each day and look forward to what he accomplishes in the future.

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