Cafe Reconcile brings innovative life skills and job training to young people from severely at-risk communities.
“So the word of the day today is open-mindedness. What does it mean to have an open mind, and is it important to have an open mind?” asks Rachel Crump, a social worker at Cafe Reconcile.
Over a dozen youth and adults gather before the work day for breakfast and their morning circle. Morning circle is where they share, pray, and give praise reports. This is also when they hear Word of the Day and discuss what it means to each of them. Today, it’s open-mindedness.
“If you’re a chef you gotta be open-minded to try different recipes,” says one participant.
Cafe Reconcile is an 11-week job training program for youth 16-23 years old. It started in 2000 and over a thousand graduates have gone on to pursue careers in restaurants, hospitals, and other food services. But Cafe Reconcile does more than train people to work in food service. It addresses participants’ understanding of workplace culture, and tailors the program for youth with little connection to the labor market.
Ashante Brown was searching for work when a family member told her about Cafe Reconcile.
“I’ve been here for five weeks now. We decided to be downstairs in the kitchen. Downstairs, I’m actually just working on a couple of stations. I was on the fry station, now I’m on the saute station. I’m actually doing pretty good,” says Brown.
Brown lives in the Ninth Ward and is mother to a seven-year-old boy. She just turned 24 so she barely made it into the program. Initially, she wasn’t so sure what she got herself into and considered leaving the program for other work. But, she knew she would gain skills necessary for more advanced work. She’s determined and believes in sticking with it, despite her already busy schedule.
“I wake up in the morning to get him ready. I also have to bring him to the bus stop, then I go run back to my house to get ready, and then I have to catch the bus to Reconcile. At Reconcile, time goes by fast because you’re like a team.”
Today, Brown learns the proper method of measuring, chopping and preparing food, like she shows us in the saute station.
First she puts on her hairnet, and washes her hands.
“Hey! Welcome to Cafe Reconcile. I’ll be your trainer for the day. I’m Duane Shelley, aka Dream Chef. So, you ready? Let’s get started,” exclaims Shelley, a chef at Cafe Reconcile.
“Stir everything together? Stir it all around. Wow, that’s good. Mix it up, you want all that flavor, okay?”
“Okay I gotcha, chef,” laughs Brown.
“I know it’s like a workplace but they make it fun a little bit. They be on us and let us know if we did something wrong. When you in a restaurant you gotta make sure you on your p’s and q’s doing everything right.”
Those P’s and Q’s are part of what’s taught during the first four weeks of the program. They learn life and foundational skills, like building up their resilience, independence and making sure they can show up every day. A challenge that Brown overcomes every day.
“It’s kind of good because my son can see that I’m going to school, and for him to go to school. Cause he be like oh he want a break. But I said 'no breaks, you gotta keep moving,'” says Brown.
Once Brown moves past the 11 weeks of training, she’ll receive support from a social worker, an employment and education coordinator, and a mental health specialist. Maintaining relationships that are fostered at Cafe Reconcile is important to the staff. Brown also values the relationships she’s cultivating.
“And that’s what I call success. Yay! This right here is one of my best students, she learns fast,” says Shelley.
“High five to that,” says Brown.
That’s my girl, stay focused,” says Shelley.
“I try not to quit. My main thing is not to give up. I try to stay focused. At the Word of the Day, we have certain words so it keeps everybody positive. I was like “you know what, I could do this,” says Brown.
Community Impact is a series exploring the work of New Orleans nonprofits. It is made possible by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.