Big Mama, Bigger HeartOct 01, 2014 11:59AM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Her desire to give individuals reentering society a break is not some vague, do-gooder’s impulse; rather, it’s a deeply felt advocacy and activist calling borne of personal experience and heartache.
The North Omaha native grew up the daughter of popular band leader Basie Givens. After a four-year U.S. Navy hitch, then decades in the telecommunications industry, Barron, who did catering on the side, opened her restaurant in 2007. Her interest in giving a helping hand began long before—when two of her daughters went to prison.
“It was such a shock,” Big Mama says, “because they had been raised in a Christian home with a mother and a father.”
Even after serving time and turning their lives around, her daughters struggled finding societal acceptance.
“They finished college. One became a counselor and the other one a nurse, only you could not get a license if you were a felon. I watched them go through the process. It took them a couple years to get their record expunged. The thing I went through with my daughters gave me an awareness” about a problem in our community. “How many other people went wayward, and it will be held against them the rest of their lives so that they can’t get a job or can’t get into a certain profession? I decided whenever I opened my restaurant, I’m going to hire felons and give people a second chance.”
Barron knows first-hand the power of second chances. She experienced two failed marriages, including one involving abuse, before finding the love of her life. It was on an operating table that she underwent a pivotal spiritual experience. She was called to serve a larger purpose.
Through her church she became active in Crossroads Connection, a ministry outreach to inmates. She believes the barriers ex-offenders face are the root of many inner city ills. She and then-State Senator Brenda Council tried getting a bill passed banning the felony box on applications. The attempt failed, but Barron’s still doing her part.
“We’re promised the pursuit of happiness in this country,” she says. “One should be able to pursue their happiness even if they are a felon. I feel like I’ve lived a pretty decent life, and so now it’s time for me to give back and to help other people pursue that happiness. If it’s by offering jobs, by giving second chances, that’s what I’m going to do because I feel like that’s my purpose.”
One of the first people she helped was her granddaughter, Diondria Harrison, who was incarcerated several years ago. After her release Barron took her on. Today Harrison is the lead cook at Big Mama’s.
Right from the start Barron, whose place has been featured on The Food Network, made it known she cut ex-cons a break. She hosted job fairs for ex-offenders that attracted hundreds.
“When I opened my restaurant most of my help was on work release,” she adds. “They worked for me during the day and went back to jail at night.”
Her open hiring policy led her to partner with others on reentry employment efforts and to offer internships to at-risk youth.
People regularly show up looking for their second chance. A woman who served 14 years in military prison for killing her abusive husband heard about Big Mama’s and had her parole officer inquire about a job when she got out. Eager to learn the culinary trade, the woman didn’t wait for a reply. The day she arrived there was no job available, so she eagerly shadowed kitchen staff before being hired as a waitress. Today, she’s working another job and nearing completion of her culinary degree at Metropolitan Community College.
“I understood where she was coming from,” Barron says. “Through all that she’s been through, she’s really kept it together. She loves to cook. Loves to bake. And that’s what I’m about, so she just fit in perfectly. She’s doing very well on her own now.”
Cornell Austin didn’t know about Barron’s big heart for felons when he appeared seeking a job after his release from prison. He’d caught her on television and, with years of food service experience behind him, he figured Big Mama’s would be a good place to start over—if its owner would get past his criminal background. She did.
“I had tried at a lot of places,” Austin says, “but I had that felony hanging over my head. When I interviewed with her I was apprehensive to tell the truth about my background, but I decided to put everything on the table. I told her what happened. She accepted it. And she didn’t judge me. She gave me a shot at a new beginning. She helped me change to be the man I am today. She gave me another chance to believe in myself—that I can make mistakes, but I can also achieve things in life as well.”
Austin now cooks at the Doubletree Hilton and still helps Big Mama on occasion. He’s only months from getting his culinary degree at Metro. He hopes to one day open his own catering business.
Barron’s happy for Austin. “Everything is going great for him. I am so proud of him. I’m glad to be a part of his life to help him get on track. He’s another black man that got on track, so I feel good about that.”
Not every ex-offender works out, she says.
“We’ve been burned by people who stole from us, lied to us, but that’s on them. I don’t let that stop me or discourage me. Most people really want to change their lives. They just need to be given a chance.
Barron, who estimates she’s employed some 200 ex-offenders, says offering folks a fresh start “makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and that my purpose here is being fulfilled.”
Cornell Austin and countless others would agree.