Editor's Note: Jessica Ann founded The Candied Yam, a Grand Rapids restaurant serving Southern cuisine, in 2016. She is also the owner of JA PR Group in Grand Rapids. As a philanthropist, over the past 12 years, she has been able to award over $115,000 in scholarships to high school and college students. She has been in West Michigan for about 25 years. Born in Lansing, Jessica Ann lived in a foster home until she was 7. She found her forever family at 8 in Kalamazoo. She is married with a daughter who just graduated high school and an adult son. She lives in Kentwood.
When Covid, hit many restaurants closed. I could have closed down too, but instead I made it my business and my mission to keep mine open because I needed to make sure that the people that work in this restaurant could still continue to do so. They need to take care of their families. Many of them were NOT eligible to receive some of the state, local or federal benefits.
At one time, more than 65% of those that worked for me at The Candied Yam Delightful Southern Cuisine had a ‘record’. I am not speaking about the type of record that we use to play back in the day, over and over and over again because the music was so great and it reached our souls. I am speaking about a criminal record for a crime they committed many years ago, like possession of an illegal substance, theft, illegal possession of firearms, breaking and entering. NOT certain felony convection or crimes like taking a life or pedophilia. Those are not allowed.
This new job is their ‘second chance’. I absolutely hate the term ‘second chance’. I am not making excuses for poor judgment or bad behavior. But a second chance? When did the first chance begin for some of them? Horrific childhood beginnings, people who never believed in them and poor decision making and habits and addiction did not get them a ‘gold star’ in the school of life. Just hard time for some of them.
Some of these individuals spent time behind bars as they were convicted of a crime. We all know that the prison system needs reform so I’m sure there are not enough therapist or adequate resources to truly help them in prison to be able to address their mental state before. They served their time and paid their debt to society. But now, the stigma must fall down on them all the days of their lives. Their dreams shattered as they check a box before trying to fill out a resume to even get an interview before they get employment.
I have had several people with records come and several people go. I have also had several who, together, we have stuck with and by each other through thick and then. They truly have become a part of our family. Some days it can get pretty heavy because my heart hurts for those I can not help or seem to find the right resources for. Some still have issues with discrimination on housing or even knowledge on getting credit and banking accounts and information.
I do have one of the best bankers though, Armando from Comerica Bank. He will gladly come to my restaurant and open an account for my people. He will talk with them privately to help them better understand the ‘how and why’. If your banker doesn’t do that, I feel for you. You don’t have good service my friend. LOL! It might be a bit much.
I take that back. Helping others is never too much if it’s in your reach to do. My teenage daughter Caitlyn puts it, “Mom, are you running a restaurant or halfway house? We can’t help everyone!” Mind you, she is the same one that fought to bring back one of HER favorites. She was correct - she’s one of mine too.
It is a comedy show around the restaurant, that’s probably why you see me always smiling and laughing. Never a dull moment.
Here is a quick story that I really enjoy sharing:
A father said to his son: You graduated with honors, here is a car that I acquired many years ago ... it is several years old. But before I give it to you, take it to the used car lot downtown and tell them I want to sell it and see how much they offer you. The son went to the used car lot, returned to his father and said, "They offered me $1,000 because it looks very worn out." The father said, "Take him to the pawn shop." The son went to the pawn shop, returned to his father and said, "The pawn shop offered $100 because it was a very old car." The father asked his son to go to a car club and show them the car. The son took the car to the club, returned and told his father: “Some people in the club offered $100,000 for it, since it is a Nissan Skyline R34, iconic car and sought after by many. The father said to his son, "I wanted you to know that the right place values you the right way." ... If you are not valued, do not be angry, it means that you are in the wrong place. Those who know your value are those who appreciate you. Never stay in a place where no one sees your value.
I most definitely see my team’s value - ALL members. I respect them as human beings and I feel very blessed to be able to work as a team with them! My amazing team is AMAZING. Being able to help my team become contributing members of society that are filled with purpose and hope fills my heart with joy.
To those of you who support us and have supported us, from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for helping us change lives one person at a time.