Career Preparation & Cajun Cooking

All youth benefit from work experiences and other opportunities to gain and practice the skills necessary to obtain and succeed in meaningful employment during their adult years. Unfortunately, many youth with disabilities and “at-risk” or “disconnected” youth never get these opportunities. On a recent visit to New Orleans on behalf of IEL’s own Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP), a career-focused mentoring program for youth with disabilities involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system, funded by the Department of Justice, I was fortunate enough to see firsthand how one of the program’s local community partners is teaching these work-readiness skills  through real world work experiences. Their methods were innovative, and, more importantly, they worked. Since the program’s inception in 2000, more than 600 graduates have gone on to pursue careers in restaurants, hospitals, and other food service providers. The organization I am referring to is called Café Reconcile.

Cafe Reconcile participant on the job

Café Reconcile is a restaurant and community-based organization located in the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood of New Orleans. To the unknowing customer, Café Reconcile might just be a nice restaurant offering delicious New Orleans fare. Dig a little deeper and you can see that it is really much more than that. Café Reconcile offers local youth (ages 16-22) from at-risk communities an opportunity to take part in a life skills and job training program right there at the restaurant.

The program takes place over the course of 12 weeks and is divided into three parts. Youth who are in need of a GED can also attend GED classes and all youth receive comprehensive case management services while they work their way through the three phases of the program. The first three weeks are dedicated to training on life skills, or what are commonly referred to as soft skills. These are the skills, traits, work habits, and attitudes that all workers across all occupations must have in order to obtain, maintain, and progress in employment, such as being dependable, punctual, positive toward work, and appropriately dressed and groomed.

After completing the life skills training, the youth receive five weeks of culinary and workplace skills training necessary for working in both the front and back of the restaurant. In the front, they learn customer service and time management skills, and in the back they learn culinary prep and food safety training. This is where they learn some of the hard skills necessary for employment at a restaurant or other hospitality business. Once they’ve had five weeks of work training, they spend four weeks interning with one of the organization’s local business partners, some of New Orleans’s most popular hotels and restaurants. These four-week long internships are great work experience and career exploration opportunities and offer the youth a chance to practice the new skills they have acquired through Café Reconcile. Because Café Reconcile only places interns at businesses with current openings, many youth transition directly from intern to employee upon completion of their internships. These working youth then come back to Café Reconcile to serve as “blue shirts” and train incoming youth.

IEL’s RAMP site located at the Human Development Center of Louisiana State University’s Health Sciences Center has recently recruited Café Reconcile as a new community partner. Both RAMP and Café Reconcile are focused on improving outcomes for at-risk youth. Through this partnership, RAMP youth will be given the opportunity to learn more about Café Reconcile from guest speakers and a tour of the facility, and eligible youth will be invited to apply to the program.

This partnership has many benefits for all involved. The RAMP program will have the benefit of additional career exploration opportunities for its youth. Café Reconcile will have a new pipeline for career focused applicants. Opportunities like this serve as a bridge to employment for so many of the young people that far too often fail to make the leap from their teenage years to a life of meaningful employment and active citizenship. The community benefits through lower court involvement, reengaged youth, more working taxpayers, and, not to mention, increased access to that delicious New Orleans food!

Po’ boy anyone?

Don’t mind if I do.

 Related Resources:

By Jason Farr, Program Associate, with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development

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