East Lyme - J.C. Ambroise is showing inmates at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution how to fold a cloth napkin to look like a flower.
It's not easy to make the "orchid" design, he tells his students one recent afternoon, but if that's what the customers want, that's what they'll get.
Ambroise, who brings more than 10 years of experience in hotel and restaurant management to his classroom inside the women's prison, is demonstrating the proper way to clean a hotel room. Never put the bedspread on the floor, he reminds a student.
Recently named Vocational Teacher of the Year by the Department of Correction, Ambroise teaches his 30 students how to take a hotel reservation, how to memorize the items on a restaurant menu and, most importantly, how to act professionally.
"You'll never hear me ask for something without a please and a thank you," he says.
Expect to get yelled at, he tells the students. Expect to solve problems. Remember, you're always on display.
His students and superiors at the prison say Ambroise gets results.
"We do know that inmates are getting employed when they leave here," said Mary Greaney, principal of the York school system. "That's so huge for the inmates to know they can get a job."
Initially hired as a GED instructor, Ambroise started the hospitality program four years ago, overseeing the construction of a mock front desk and hotel room inside his classroom. Though the prison does not formally track the employment progress of inmates after their release, word came back recently that one hospitality graduate had landed a job and was promoted within six weeks.
On this late summer afternoon in the classroom, inmate Taneisha Middleton, 28, of Hartford is booking reservations at the "front desk." Middleton, who is about to be released, says she signed up for the program just to have something to do. But she found she enjoyed learning new computer skills and practical techniques, such as how to get a stain out of a carpet, and is looking to find a job in the hospitality industry. One day, she says, she hopes to be a hotel manager. "I know I have to start at the bottom and make my way to the top," she says.
Middleton says the class recently put on a banquet for 24 special guests, including Connecticut's first lady, Cathy Malloy, and Department of Correction Commissioner Leo C. Arnone.
Ambroise says that with the downturn in the economy, most of the jobs that are available are in the service industry. As a final project, each student prepares a PowerPoint presentation on the hospitality offerings of the location of her choice.
"Hospitality is nationwide and worldwide," Ambroise tells the students. "Everybody's hungry and everybody needs a place to sleep, so we're going to have work. ... Find a place where you fit."
Inmate Heather Salomonson of Stonington, who has worked at the local casinos and thought she knew a lot about the hospitality industry, says she learned a lot in the program. "He's inspiring in this field," she says of Ambroise. "We learned everything from soup to nuts about running a hotel, from laundry services to banquets."