I thought I knew what I was getting into with this story. When I called the organizers of Together We Bake, I imagined going to shoot video of women baking and exchanging tips on how to make the best chocolate chip cookie.

Sure, I knew this story also had a serious side: women coming straight from prison or homelessness to this bake shop in Alexandria looking for a second chance at life. But I never anticipated just how honest these woman would be with me or the tears they would shed during the interview.

Colida Johnson and Lekisha Cunningham have similar pasts, which includes felony charges. Those records make it nearly impossible for them to now get jobs.

“Just being rejected for your background – that still hurts,” said Colida who was out of work for two years.

Eventually, they both found their way to Together We Bake, a non-profit that teaches women food safety, self-confidence, and how to find employment. The program lasts for eight weeks, but Colida and Lekisha didn’t leave after their graduations. They’ve stuck around to help other women using a simple mantra: if I can do it, you can do it.

Up to this point in the interview, they hadn’t told me anything I didn’t expect to hear, especially since most of what they told me I had also read online in research.

But now we had arrived at the question I was most afraid to ask: how did you get here? Not here as in Together We Bake, but here in life. Their completely honest answers were the most surprising part of the interview.

“I went into prison with 26 felonies,” said Lekisha.

At this point, my jaw dropped. Lekisha saw my expression and said, “Yeah.”

Simple as that. She didn’t sugarcoat it. She didn’t make excuses. She just told me about her years of drug abuse and check fraud. 

Colida was just as honest when she told me about her felony embezzlement charge that happened years ago. When I asked if she was the same person today that she was five years ago, Colida said, “No, no. Not at all.”

The problem for these women is that no matter how much they change, their pasts never will.

“I’ve learned to be real,” said Lekisha about owning who she is – the good, the bad, all of it.

Both women could point to child abuse as the beginning of the downward spiral, and for years they did. I’m sure some days they still do. But part of the healing has been letting go of the past. Accepting it, yes. But blaming it, no.

And that acceptance seems to have come in the most unlikely of places: the kitchen.

While learning to bake for a living, these women started a friendship with an unspoken pact: to push each other to move forward and never look back.

For more information on Together We Bake, visit their website: https://new.togetherwebake.org/

Also, on Wednesday, April 5th, they will be selling their baked goods at Port City Brewing in Alexandria for Spring2ACTion Day.