Compton Jones persevered through 23 years in prison, sustained by the unconditional love and support of his family.

After his release this April, amid a global pandemic, his family took him in as he began to rebuild his life. They are also his motivation to stay on a positive path.

“I’ve been away from them so long, I’m not trying to leave them again for any nonsense,” said the 53-year-old father and grandfather. “I’m not going to leave them again, period. But definitely not for any nonsense.”

Jones, a native of Chicago’s South Side, has spent his entire adult life in and out of incarceration. This last sentence – a drug-related charge – began just two weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

But several years ago, he made the decision that once he was released, he wouldn’t return to his old life.

“The price I had to pay, it wasn’t worth it,” he said. “Just a simple man; that’s all I want to be.”

This led Jones to the Food Depository’s job training programs, which are designed to help Cook County residents facing unemployment or underemployment gain skills to work in the hospitality industry. He recently completed two four-week programs focused on food handling and front-of-house customer service training. Due to the pandemic, the classes were taught mostly online with occasional in-person lessons done in small groups.

Compton Jones (right) takes instruction from chef instructor Roberto Perez during a knife cuts lesson

Compton Jones (right) takes instruction from chef instructor Roberto Perez during a knife cuts lesson

“The people here are so helpful and so respectful,” he said about the trainings. “If you’re really trying to do something, their resources are unlimited. You just have to reach out. These are the kind of people I want to surround myself with.”

Jones has enjoyed cooking and working with food since he was a young boy growing up in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. When he was five years old, his mother started teaching how to help in the kitchen. His favorite memories of them preparing meals together, he recalled, were around the holidays. For Thanksgivings and Christmases, he said she would start in the kitchen early, preparing the turkey, ham, and all of the traditional side dishes: greens, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, and the list goes on.

“She would have her blues music on, everybody else would be asleep. It would be cold (and) snowing out,” he remembered. “She would just be showing me what you need to do, letting me taste the bowl – different stuff like that. We did that for so many years that I knew everything she used and how to cook it, even when she passed away.”

When he got older, he enjoyed cooking for his four daughters. It stayed with him even during incarceration, he said. With whatever ingredients they could get leftover from the kitchen or buy from the commissary, he would make himself and his fellow inmates special meals.

But he picked up vital new skills throughout the trainings, including food safety, kitchen sanitation and proper knife cuts. Beyond the kitchen, he added that working alongside his fellow classmates taught him valuable lessons about trust and teamwork.

Compton Jones attends class in the Food Depository kitchen

Compton Jones attends a lesson on packaging premade food in the Food Depository kitchen.

“These guys made me loosen up a little bit,” he said. “The love that these people showed us, and then how we interacted in the classes and worked together, it was kind of special.”.

Looking toward his future, Jones hopes to use his new skills and certifications to secure a steady job and save up for his own housing. He’s hungry to keep learning. He dreams of owning his own food truck.

This time of transition hasn’t been easy, Jones said, and he knows he still has more to do. Through it all, he’s grateful for the chance to start anew – and to be able to do it alongside his loved ones.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys, even way before this COVID stuff hit, that passed away while incarcerated,” he said. “It’s like their souls are trapped in those places. So I feel like I’m blessed to be able to have made it home after all this time. I know that I’m blessed.”