Candice Crawford, 35, is learning her way around a commercial kitchen after growing up on the Tohono O'odham reservation cooking over an open fire. 

Candice Crawford grew up making traditional Tohono O'odham food right over an open fire about 26 miles outside of Sells. 

She learned by watching her grandmother harvest the Sonoran desert — cholla buds, mesquite beans, cactus fruit, rabbit, deer, cow. 

Even when she moved into a new trailer on the reservation, she remembers looking at the stove top and oven "like, I don't know how to use that. ... We're going to cook outside." 

But not anymore. 

Crawford is starting week three of Gap Ministries' free 10-week culinary school for low-income adults. It's five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

For Crawford, it's a chance at a fresh start. 

Three rounds of incarceration

In November, the 35-year-old was released from her third round of incarceration for transporting drugs. During this most recent 36-month stint in federal prison, Crawford had almost two years of rehabilitation through the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Residential Drug Abuse Program. 

That made all the difference, she says, setting her up for a new life in a way that she didn't experience after her first two-and-a-half years in the state system and then again after six months of federal incarceration. 

She learned about accountability, anger management and self-inflicted isolation. She learned about staying sober. 

"Due to the treatment program, a lot of the pieces of my life make sense..." Crawford says. "I usually take the easy way out or want instant gratification and denied I had an anger problem. ... I had a shield and a mask glued on and it didn't come off. Everything was good ... I was more or less pushing people away that were helping me because I didn't want them to know I was still in my criminal activity or still in my substance abuse." 

Crawford was raised by her grandmother as the oldest of 10 children. Her grandmother spoke more of the O'odham language than English and Crawford became the family's translator, adding that she transported drugs to supplement her grandmother's income. 

She says she grew up around alcohol abuse and domestic violence. 

"And I was also sexually abused at a young age..." Crawford says. "I chose to not learn or reach out to others for help. That was my belief I grew up on. Whatever happens in the home, stays in the home, and due to all of that, I was a stuffer. I stuffed my pain, my hurt, my loss and didn't know how to cope with it at that time." 

Supporting her family became her excuse for illegal activity, she says. So in and out of the tribal, state and federal systems she went. During her second incarceration, her grandmother died and she began expressing her grief through aggression. 

But she believes those days are behind her, thanks to her months of rehab and the opportunity she has with this culinary school. 

Cooking up new beginnings 

Applicants to this new program must be adults with a place to live and able to commit to the course's duration. Those who do have criminal backgrounds cannot have sexual or violent offenses on their records, says Katrina Fristoe, the Gap kitchen program manager.

The idea is that by the end of the class, the students will receive national ServSafe accreditation, allowing them to enter the food service industry qualified for jobs several steps above entry-level positions, says the program's chef, John Hohn, the 2014 Iron Chef Tucson. 

"Their resumes should be better; they build good connections and therefore should be able to get a good job and not start at the bottom," Hohn says. He hopes to use his past chef work at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort and other Tucson restaurants and resorts as a means of connecting graduates of the program with jobs. 

Crawford and the other eight students aren't just learning their way around a commercial kitchen. The unpaid program teaches basic life, job and financial skills, with students coached through saving a small emergency fund by the end of the 10 weeks. 

They're also giving back. Although Gap Ministries has had the kitchen since 2014, this is the first formal culinary program for adults, Fristoe says. The ministry is using the class to prepare meals for foster children in Gap Ministries' group homes and elementary-aged kids at low-income schools. 

For Crawford, it is a step toward funding her future. 

She wants to regain custody of her two sons, ages 15 and 6, and go back to school for her associate's degree. She wants to study counseling. 

"I have dealt with sexual abuse, domestic violence, alcohol abuse, grief and loss..." Crawford says. "I would like to go back to the reservation and, instead of kids and females turning to alcohol all the time, teach them other ways to cope with those emotions — reaching out and trusting." 

She understands all of these struggles. And now she also knows the grief that suicide leaves behind. In December, she lost one of her brothers. 

And this time, she dealt with her grief sober. 

 "Due to losses before, I chose to drink and turned to alcohol right away to numb my pain, and this time being sober and dealing with it, I'm surprised," she says. "I'm proud of myself and surprised that it wasn't even in my mind ... What would my brother want? Would he want to see me under the influence or would he want to see me successful? ... And would I be willing to give up my freedom and go back to jail, or would I like to continue striving for my goals and making my kids proud, because I have told my kids over and over 'I love you. I miss you.' But then I party and go back to my criminal activity." 

One small victory at a time. 

Fry bread and enchiladas

When she returns to the Tohono O'odham reservation, she hopes to use her culinary training to get a job at a diner in Sells. 

"There are really good people in the class," Crawford says. "People are offering their prayers and I can't explain the love and passion. ... That has helped me cope." 

The class has also exposed her to new foods. She laughs about not knowing what to put into enchiladas while others toss in this or that. 

Her specialty is fry bread, a dish coveted by her classmates. It's an exchange: She teaches them about her culture while learning about others. 

"She lights up when she is in the kitchen," Fristoe says. "She worked in kitchens while in prison. She has never had an opportunity to know these diverse food cultures. As poor as they were, they had not choice but to live off of the land. She cooked on an open fire with her grandmother. But now everyone is dying to know what she puts in her fry bread." 

To learn more about Gap Ministries or to donate, visit or call 877-8077. Click here to find the application for the next Gap culinary school program.