Café Provides a Fresh Start For County Foster Youth

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday February 12, 2009 - 11:22:00 AM

For 19-year-old Tony Montoya, working in Oakland’s Fresh Start Café is more than just serving coffee and sandwiches. It’s an opportunity to get a boost out of state-funded foster care and into an independent life. 

The café, located inside the Alameda County Clerk-Recorder’s Office, is a partnership between the county and Aramark, food service provider for many county buildings, designed to help 18-year-olds transition from foster care into the community. 

“It’s an opportunity in this economic climate to give youth job skills that will benefit them when they are released from county supervision,” County Administrator Susan Muranishi said. 

In promoting the program, the county cites a study by the Children’s Advocacy Institute which said that 65 percent of youth transition out of California’s foster care system without a place to live and that 51 percent are unemployed. 

“This is one small local effort to chip away at a national problem,” said Randy Morris, director of the Division of Placement and Emancipation Services for the Alameda County Social Services Agency. “It’s a way to fight the homelessness and joblessness that these kids often fall into.” 

Youth employees work in the café under the supervision of an Aramark employee, earning $8.25 an hour, for 10 weeks, during which they learn about food safety techniques, product presentation, and most important, customer service. After completing a training course and their sojourn in the café, the employees receive a food service certificate, a mark of distinction that will help the young people in finding a permanent position. 

Gwendolyn Johnson, the Aramark supervisor at the Fresh Start Café, was offered the position in return for excellent customer service when she worked in the Sheriff’s Office dining room. 

“It’s great to help students learn to do just what I do,” she said. “I’m thankful to be working with foster kids because I have had family fall into foster care. It’s an opportunity to learn what is in themselves and how to go forward.” 

The employees are hired by Pivotal Point Youth Services, the county’s youth employment provider, after expressing interest in food services and passing a rigorous interview process. Once the current three employees have graduated, the county will rotate in three more kids with a desire to learn. 

“They have an advantage here that they can make mistakes under guidance,” Morris said. “And after they complete the program, we can position them to interview for other similar positions or positions with Aramark.” 

The flagship café, which opened at the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro in May 2008, was conceived by Muranishi as a public-private partnership that would allow kids to earn money and develop professional skills that will help them stand out in the job market. 

“It’s a really innovative partnership between the County and Aramark that benefits our young people,” Muranishi said. 

Youth employees work in a county-run and subsidized program under the supervision of an Aramark employee, in an Aramark-stocked café located in county buildings. 

“We were very happy to be asked to partner with Susan and to make a contribution to the community,” said Cardell Moore, general manager of the correctional services facilities for Aramark. “It provides an outlet for youth to get the job skills they need to get jobs. They get hands-on work with an Aramark employee and the guidance they need when they’re just starting out.” 

For Aramark, the café is an extension of other outreach programs the company has in jails and other locations. 

For the county, however, the program is a positive addition to youth and family services, and a model that could be branded and replicated other places, Muranishi said. 

For the kids involved, it’s a practical and emotional boost at a pivotal point in their lives. For Tony Montoya, who hopes to one day own his own, family-run café, the program is a life-changing experience. 

“I like that they’re providing more opportunities for foster kids,” he said. “It gives back to the community, but it helps me as well.”