Utopia Blair - A Success Story

Utopia Blair - A Success Story

Andrea Byerly
Wednesday, July 26, 2023 12:00 AM
All, Press Releases, Students, Community

CLEVELAND, TN - “It was a blessing to go to jail. It’s crazy that I say that,” declares Utopia Blair. “I was at the lowest of low. I was on drugs, running from the police; I didn’t have any kind of future. And now, I have my own place, a job, and I’m going somewhere. I’m actually clean. I love my life now; I didn’t before.”

In April, Blair and six other female inmates participated in the first Culinary Bootcamp offered by Cleveland State Community College at the Bradley County Justice Center. Utilizing the onsite kitchen, all seven inmates earned the ServSafe Food Handler certification in the 40-hour program.

Working in the jail kitchen as an inmate, Blair was motivated to take the culinary class because it offered industry certification and reduced her sentence. She enjoyed the first bootcamp so much, she wanted to take it again. Instead, the instructor, Kezmond Pugh, allowed her to assist with the second bootcamp.

“The best part was the food,” said Blair. “It brought us all together. Kezmond was the best person for the job; he made it enjoyable. He makes you want to learn more. Everything he knows he pours it out to you, and if you are struggling in a situation other than the just culinary class, he tries his best to help.”

Less than two weeks after being released from jail, Blair was hired by a local convenience store. The bootcamp gave Blair confidence and prepared her for the position, preparing food in the café. “Once I told them that I had the ServSafe certification, they instantly hired me. I knew I could do the job because I knew all the steps,” said Blair.

“When I started teaching this class, I thought it would be just cooking skills, but it turned into life skills. The class is 70% cooking and 30% life skills,” said instructor Kezmond Pugh. “Some days are heavy and emotional, but I take pride in the class and creating friendships. Utopia wanted to learn and help others. She was open to coaching on life skills and determined to change her life. It doesn’t surprise me that she is doing good.”

The Culinary Bootcamps came together by a collaborative partnership. Cleveland State Community College Workforce Development Department worked with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office and City Fields to provide the training. Southeast Tennessee Development District (SETDD) provided funding with a Justice Involved Initiative (JII) grant.

“The goal of the program is to reduce the amount of recidivism we often see within our jail and allows for a career path once released,” said Bradley County Sheriff Steve Lawson. “Through this education program, we are able to equip inmates with the knowledge and increased confidence they need to be a benefit to the workforce and our community. We are blessed to have so many collaborative partners to ensure the success of our Adult Education Program.”

“We are all so proud of Utopia and the other culinary graduates,” said Heather Brown, Director of Workforce Development at Cleveland State. “Thank you to all the partners who make this work a reality. With the low unemployment numbers, Workforce Development training for the re-entry population is key for the economy and life-changing for the students.”

Blair also plans to take a Welding Bootcamp offered by Cleveland State and City Fields in August. When asked what was next for her, Blair said, “Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far yet, but I have options now that I did not have before.”

For more information about these partnerships or future bootcamps, contact Cleveland State Director of Workforce Development, Heather Brown, hbrown@clevelandstatecc.edu or (423) 614-8793. 


Photo Cutline: Utopia Blair (third from left) in the Culinary Bootcamp with fellow students. Instructor Kezmond Pugh (second from right) and Sheriff Lawson (on right) join the class.


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  • Cleveland Bradley Business Incubator
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  • Cleveland State Sustainability Initiative
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  • TN eCampus
  • Tennessee Transfer Pathway