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“I was so angry when I came here. I had to find somewhere to put it and I just put it into cooking,” remembers Brianti Sumler of her arrival at Café Hope, a farm-to-table restaurant created to help young adults of the Greater New Orleans area develop self-sufficiency. Brianti was typical of many young Americans who find themselves entering adulthood having never received a high school diploma, their futures bleak.
Brianti is among a diverse cast of individuals whose stories of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles are highlighted in the nationally broadcast KET series, Dropping Back In.
“They come to us because they have families to support,” said Café Hope Executive Director Luis Arocha. “They come to us because they need money and they need the skills to go out and get a job.” Arocha describes a sense of hopelessness that recurs throughout the series. “It’s been a lot of failure in their lives, whether it’s failure at home or failure in the school system, failure in the streets with their friends, they’re looking for hope.”
Former Café Hope apprentice Tyron Depron recalls the hopelessness that accompanied giving up on life. “As I progressed and got older I went to thinking that’s not the best thing to do because if I just give up, it’s just going to be harder and harder.”
Russell Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California in Santa Barbara and author of Dropping Out, notes that for many among the one million students who each year leave high school prematurely in the United States, the issues are not limited to difficult life circumstances.
“We’ve defined high school success too narrowly in the United States,” he says. “Increasingly, it’s become defined solely as performance on academic subjects as states and school districts around the country have increased the requirements for graduation based on taking more and more college preparatory courses.”
There is an awakening to the idea that while college may not be for everyone, education is. “The college-for-all movement, as laudable as it is, has tended to depress the esteem and social regard in which anything other than a four-year college degree is held, “ says Ron Ferguson, Co-Director of Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity Program. “And we’ve diminished the value of more traditional vocational areas like welding or auto mechanics and such where there are jobs available in our economy.”
A recent Washington Post report focused on a nationwide shortage of able restaurant kitchen hands – not just the top chefs we hear so much about, but also the men and women who are fresh out of culinary school and eager to earn their chops.
Ferguson points out that about two-thirds of the American population does not receive four-year degrees. “And so, we have to get to the point where we’re making sure that all of our young people are prepared to be productive members of the workforce.”
Becoming prepared doesn’t just happen. “Anyone who comes through this program is going to need a hell of a lot of grit; they’re going to need a lot of perseverance,” cautioned Café Hope Program Director Chance Doyle. “We have many students who are doing more every day to just get by. I’m always amazed by their strength.”
Café Hope is a three month program – six weeks in the back of the house, six weeks in the front of the house. “But they don’t stop there,” notes Joey LaBella, Executive Chef, Steamboat Natchez. “They also help these people with life skills, basic reading and arithmetic.”
There are field trips to operating restaurants; advice on how to avoid panic when the restaurant is busy, the orders flying into the kitchen; and most important to anyone hoping to find their way in society, coaching on how to interact with others.
Students learn how to set and wait tables, a portion of the program where Executive Director Arocha sees the most growth. “Typically when they come into Café Hope it’s hard to get eye contact. But by bringing them to the dining room they’re forced to look people in the eye and to work on their communication skills.”
From learning how to make gumbo and sweet potato biscuits from scratch, to developing communication prowess and understanding responsibility for kitchen equipment and cleanliness, students like Brianti Sumler and Tyron Depron find they are now valued.
Approximately 70 percent of the apprentices who complete the Café Hope program find restaurant industry employment.
“It’s a great program,” said Steamboat Natchez chef Joey LaBella. “It’s my favorite one to recruit people from.”