The Second annual "COVID" version of the SLO Grilled Cheese Festival is underway.
It’s a month-long county-wide event.
Sister Theresa Harpin says because she couldn't hold a traditional fundraiser festival, she instead decided to use the ultimate comfort food as a way to support local restaurants, build a sense of community and raise awareness about her organization and local non-profit Restorative Partners.
“Well, the grilled cheese, just the idea of it, it's like everyone's favorite food. I know it was mine growing up,” Harpin told KSBY News.
Restorative Partners was started more than 10 years ago as a bridge for inmates transitioning from life behind bars to life outside.
Sister Theresa noticed the need when she was working with inmates as part of a different program.
“Is there another solution? Getting people back to their families and back to their lives, I was very interested in restorative justice, restoring lives," she said.
Michelle Cole was introduced to Sister Theresa by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson. Now retired from the sheriff's office, Cole spent most of her law enforcement career working with inmates at the county jail.
She says she noticed that many of them were incarcerated due to just one mistake or bad decision.
“So there are people who do need a second chance and I felt like Sister Theresa and I could help those individuals who were willing to turn their lives around and it made our community safer,” Cole said.
But putting those individuals right back into the same environment would likely mean the same result.
“And she and I started developing the organization Restorative Partners to help transition inmates from custody to our community and it just made sense to case manage them so that they have at least some success in our community, otherwise without the support, they are going to be back in our jail," Cole said.
The organization now has five re-entry/recovery homes in San Luis Obispo County and serves as a kind of halfway house between life on the inside and life outside for released inmates, offering everything from addiction recovery and anger management to job training and placement.
The success has been tremendous. Former client Luis Venegas landed behind bars at the age of 15 and spent nearly two decades in state prison.
“I was fortunate enough to be released. When I was released, I came out with Restorative Partners in their sober living homes and I was part of the program for six months until I graduated,” Venegas said.
He ultimately found a job and moved out on his own. Now, he's back working for the organization helping others find the same success.
Sister Theresa says the grilled cheese has another connection to her organization.
“Restorative Partners has a vested interest in this industry because we've been training people at the jail and outside to get jobs in the food industry,” she said.
The restaurant industry has been happy to help. Pappy McGregor's in Paso Robles is just one of more than 25 restaurants participating.
“We're all about family and helping each other in the community. We've been here forever. We felt grounded here and we also have a great grilled cheese that people love,” said Pappy McGregor’s owner Donovan Schmit.
For Sister Theresa, that's what it's all about.
“We've been able to meet them where they are, rebuild their lives and then give back to the community and that's the way it should be,” she said.
For a list of participating restaurants or information on how to vote for your favorite grilled cheese, click here.