Joy after tragedy: Chef serves up second chances to justice-involved women

Published: 12/14/2020, 9:01 AM
Edited: 03/11/2021, 10:22 AM
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(TULSA, Okla.) Watching Maria Morris expertly measure and mix ingredients, you’d never know those hands were once tools for self-destruction. “When my daughter passed away, I was just like, I don't, I don't care,” Morris said. “I don't care anymore. Being very promiscuous, pretty much just using all the time, couch surfing, sleeping under bridges, you name it. I've done it out on the street.” Morris’s painful path to rock bottom began at the beginning of 2018. She had lost custody of her 1-year daughter Carabelle due to drug addiction, and was visiting her at her mother’s house on East 33rd Street. Early on January 10, the bedroom she and her daughter were sleeping in caught fire. Morris made it out. Carabelle did not. “I used all this time that I've set out to build something new, because when she passed away, I felt like I just wanted to die,” Morris said. “I wish I had died with her. But now I feel like I have a reason to live. I have a legacy to carry on in her name.” Morris’s drug addiction began in high school. Her father was a baker and banquet chef whom she had always cooked with. Then he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He passed away when she was a senior. “I just watched him slowly deteriorate,” Morris said. “Me and my dad, we were really close.” She started drinking alcohol, then taking pills to cope with the pain. Eventually she turned to meth and became a stripper. Then Morris got pregnant. But the baby girl growing inside of her couldn’t stop the pull of her addiction. On March 22, 2016, Carabelle was born with meth in her system and taken away. Morris didn’t give up. She enrolled in Tulsa Tech, determined to have a better life for herself and her daughter. “I really just kind of close my eyes and just like picked a program at Tulsa Tech and it ended up being culinary,” Morris said. Morris excelled in her classes. Student of the Year her first year, first place in a state competition. Her second year, she received first place in a state competition and third in nationals. At the end of 2017, Morris began to fall back into her addiction. She signed herself up to go to rehab on January 19. Instead of following through, Morris would be in a hospital bed, recovering from the fire. “I remember my daughter, she didn't want to go to sleep that night,” Morris said. “And, like, she's really good about her bedtime. She just looks at me. She says, ‘Night, night, mommy, love you’. And the next thing I know, I wake up to someone yelling.” Morris said when she got up, the whole room was full of smoke. “And it was so hot; it felt like somebody had stuck me in the oven,” Morris said. “It was so hot and I panicked. And the first thing I did was punch the window. And I just swan dived out the window. And my brother, he comes around the house and he's like, ‘Where's Carabelle?’ And my heart just drops.” “And I run. I remember running back through the front door, running back into the house, making it to the bedroom door. And I couldn't get in the bedroom door. And then I fainted. I woke up three days later in the hospital. A machine was breathing for me.” Morris said she thinks she kicked a rolling bed into a rolling cabinet while jumping out the window, and that’s how the door became barricaded shut. “I had wide open gashes that were stitched up on both arms. And burns,” Morris said. “And I tried to rock my arms and I was asking the nurse. I was like, where's my baby? You know, I couldn't talk. So, I was just rocking my arms. And she just stopped and looked at me and she said, ‘You don't remember? Your baby died in that fire.’ And she walked out.” The cause of the fire was never determined. Morris told us they experienced multiple breaker trips in the house and she believes the fire was electrical. There were also no fire detectors in the house. The family filed a wrongful death suit against the landlord earlier this year. That case is still pending. Four months after the fire, the Tulsa Police Department recommended a Child Neglect charge against Morris for Carabelle’s death. The District Attorney’s Office charged her that September. Morris says she learned she was wanted in a news article. “My first reaction was, no, like, they can't do this,” Morris said. “And I was mad. I thought I was already grieving in a bad place, but that took me down like ten more notches.” “During my ten-month stay in jail in Tulsa County, He kept sending me these cell mates. They were really like, very spiritual. Eventually my heart was softened.” She met Rhonda Bear, founder of She Brews Coffee, a chain of coffee shops that helps women reenter society after battling problems like drug addiction. Morris was looking at 15-20 years. But the judge sentenced her to ten and ruled it would all be suspended if she committed herself to the Just the Beginning Treatment Program, in addition to some other requirements. After completing that program, Morris put herself in another program: The Launch Program at Kitchen 66, Tulsa’s food business incubator, located in Mother Road Market. She launched “Carabelle's Eats and Treats” two years after her daughter’s death. “People in the community, they're coming,” Morris said. “They're corralling around me. And the support is amazing. And they're helping me piece it together from scratch, you know. And so, my give back is to employ women who have been involved in the justice system. That's what I want to do, you know, to give them a second chance to inspire that hope, that hope that was inspired in me. And that's what Carabelle’s Eats and Treats is all about.” Though currently content with all of her blessings, Morris said she aspires to have a storefront one day. “Just meeting my customers and somewhere I could employ these women, you know,” Morris said. For now, she’s able to do that at She Brews, where she works as their Lead Barista. And Kitchen 66, where she mentors justice-involved women who assist with her catering business. “It makes it all worth it,” Morris said. “It makes the late nights worth it, and it makes the early mornings right after that worth it, you know.” “A more righteous life is the only way I'm going to get back to her. And that's what I keep in my head. So, I have to keep going down this straight path, you know, the straight and narrow path, because I want to see her.” For more information about Carabelle’s Eats and Treats, visit https://www.carabelleseatsandtreats.com/

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