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Bright Ideas

Career Education in the Kitchen

Bryan Laher and Shaquille Brown at the Community Kitchen

Scott Roubeck at the Community Kitchen

Daniel Tynes at the Community Kitchen

Shaquille Brown in the Community Kitchen with Scott Roubeck

Learning prep skills at the Community Kitchen

Scott Roubeck at the Community Kitchen

Eva Gary at the Community Kitchen

Learning prep skills at the Community Kitchen

Learning prep skills at the Community Kitchen

Bryan, Shaquille and Scott at the Community Kitchen

Scott Roubeck at the Community Kitchen

At Ann Arbor's Food Gatherers, feeding the hungry is only part of the equation. Preparing at-risk young adults for careers in the food industry is another. 
Last spring, 21-year-old Bryan Layher had lost his job at Starbucks and things were looking bleak.
"I was living on my own, but stuff was getting tight," Layher says. "I was just looking around on the Internet for programs to help me out so I could get more experience in the food industry."
Rodrick Hamilton had found himself in a similar predicament in 2010. Twenty years old at the time, Hamilton was wrapping up his GED, but had few career prospects.
"I was still living at home with my parents, and I was looking for work," he says. "I don't think I could have gotten a job at that time though."
But both men found support, and a renewed sense of hope for their futures, in Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen Job Training Program. The food bank's free program offers six weeks of food preparation and job skills training to low-income and at-risk young people between the ages of 17 and 24. The environment is ideal for students, who have the opportunity to prepare and serve meals to the needy at Food Gatherers' Community Kitchen in the Robert J. Delonis Center. According to Food Gatherers head of development Mary Schlitt, the program also makes an ideal fit with the organization's mission.
"Our primary goal is to get food into the hands of people who need it," Schlitt says. "The job training program was a way to work at some of the root causes of hunger and poverty, to help people get employed, to work on some community service building, and also giving individuals tools to move forward in finding employment. A lot of our students may not even go into food service, but the kind of environment that we create is like a job experience, so it prepares them for having a full-time job."
The program began as a pilot in 2005, two years after Food Gatherers opened the Community Kitchen. There have been two sessions every year since, one in spring and one in summer, with over 120 students graduating since the program's inception. Most students are referred to Food Gatherers through partner organizations in the Washtenaw Housing Authority, primarily the youth shelter Ozone House. Boasting an 87 percent graduation rate, the program's students generally aren't lacking for commitment or enthusiasm.
"It always surprises me how quickly they adapt to the environment and how motivated they are to do the work," says Scott Roubeck, the program's lead instructor. "Usually I'm the one that's a little nervous."
Students devote 20 hours per week to the program, with each day of the week devoted to a different activity. Students spend Mondays preparing and serving meals in the Community Kitchen. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are spent in a classroom setting, learning culinary and job skills from Food Gatherers employees and a variety of community guest speakers. Thursdays and Fridays are spent doing hands-on kitchen work with a guest chef, developing recipes and cooking techniques. Some days the routine is broken up with a field trip to a local restaurant, where students are treated to new cuisines and a behind-the-scenes tour with kitchen staff.
"They had us making foods, going home, finding recipes, coming back, and actually being able to make them," Layher says. "We'd go out on field trips and see how other places clean in the kitchen and how they prepare their food. We went to a French restaurant and tried some of their food, and went to the Blue Nile and tried some of their food. I hadn't experienced any of that kind of food before."
Schlitt says the field trips are just one element of an education that aims to put students in touch with a variety of professionals in the field, including bankers and insurance reps on the business side, and restaurateurs and nutritionists in the culinary arena.
"It's not just, 'Here's a plate of food,'" she says. "It's a learning experience centered around that dining experience." 
Students also receive a stipend while in the program. Schlitt says the stipend is a modest amount based on need, intended to cover housing and transportation until students are better able to return to the job search after graduation.
"We want students to be stable while they're in the program," she says. "We don't want something like transportation to get in the way of them being able to get there."
Eighty-eight percent of students are either placed in a job in the community, or go on to further education, after graduation. Many remain at Food Gatherers for their next step with an internship or full-fledged job. Roubeck says the program is not a handout, but a launching pad, for young people who are ready to make their way but lacking in career skills.
"Many of our kids just haven't found the right opportunity, and they are very willing and eager to succeed," he says. "Just giving them the time and the attention and the room to grow, and reinforcing their success as they go through the program, helps to build their confidence and really opens up a world of contacts for them to explore in terms of finding employment."
These days, things are looking much brighter for graduates Layher and Hamilton. Layher just started a new job as a restaurant host; he's also been interning at Food Gatherers for the past six months, and is preparing to help Roubeck usher in this year's crop of trainees. Meanwhile, Hamilton has moved up from a Food Gatherers internship to a full-time job in the organization's warehouse. Floundering in the job market only a short time ago, both men have made extraordinary progress, and both give credit to Food Gatherers' support.
"The skills I learned have really helped me out here a lot," Hamilton says. "It was like I had to crawl before I started walking."
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