The east side's Goodman Community Center, formerly the Atwood Community Center, has long been responding to the needs of Madison's youth population, as well as the community at large. One current focus of the center's varied teen services is a growing employment program based on the culinary arts, agriculture and entrepreneurship.
Ben Hunter, the center's teen employment program coordinator and director of food systems, is working with the Goodman staff to refine and expand these programs in conjunction with the center's imminent move to a new, larger space located at 149 Waubesa Street. Hunter is set to begin recruiting teens for the fall program, which will include a teen-run catering service, café and coffee kiosk.
Hunter speaks with The Daily Page about these upcoming projects and the value of youth employment programs.
The Daily Page: Describe the basic concept behind this employment project.
Hunter: The Goodman Community Center has a long history of working with teens and middle schoolers and preschoolers and all ages of youth. At a certain point in the kids' lives, there's one need that they express more than anything, and that is that they want work and they want jobs. A lot of them aren't really equipped or prepared to do that, so we work with them to [address] the immediate need for money to buy things; but we also work with them because we want them to be ready for the job market so they can actually make choices in their lives. The idea with this project is to work with youth in a way that gives them the opportunity for choice.
We do that through several things. We're operating several small businesses that are teen-run, and that's pretty unique to this area. We're going to be operating a catering company that will cater events at the Goodman Community Center, as well as some off-site events. We'll be operating a coffee kiosk at East High School, run by teens. We'll also be operating a café at the Goodman Center. We're also going to be working with the teens to develop an urban agriculture project. We'll be growing and selling produce to the public and to our own businesses.
When did this program begin?
I was hired around a year ago, but this is an idea that Becky Steinhoff [executive director of the Goodman Community Center] and others at the Goodman Center have been thinking about for years. This has been the brainchild of the center for a long time, and they brought me in to flesh it out. They started out wanting to have teen employment in a restaurant of some sort, and they basically let me loose with it.
How do the teens get involved with the projects?
Teens elect to become involved. We don't really turn them down. Once they express interest, I develop relationships and figure out in what ways to help them get involved -- basically assessing need, competency level and interest.
How do they find out about the program?
We actively canvass at East High School and other schools. We also do a lot of programming with our kids throughout town. It's a lot of word of mouth and a lot of us looking for kids.
Tell me about your partnership with Vocationally Integrated Pathways, East High's work and learn program.
It's great. It's very curriculum based. [The students] don't need money right now, they need high school, and they get credit for this. They're involved for 18 weeks. For the first eight weeks, they rotate through all the positions in the kitchen. I have a dishwasher position, I have a barista, I have a prep cook, I have a line cook, I have a baking position, I have a position where they work with the center's food programming, and I also have a position where they do some catering prep.
So there are all these different positions, and after nine weeks, they get to decide what they want to do, and we specialize for the next nine weeks. There's obviously not a dishwashing position for the second period. Everyone has to do one dishwashing shift a week. I have one group from 8 in the morning until 11:30 and I have another group from 11:30 to 3. We basically are going to open this café, and there are going to be two full time cooks in there, myself included, and another cook.
With how many kids would you estimate you're working right now?
We had eight students involved with the program through the summer. I've worked with up to 30 kids so far. In the fall, I expect to be having 25 unique teens involved on a regular basis.
Do you primarily work with at-risk youth?
Yes, it is primarily with at-risk youth, but it's not restricted to that at all. Basically, instead of saying that we're working with at-risk youth, I would say we're working to help kids who aren't job ready become job ready.
So, would you say this program is less about gaining technical cooking skills than about gaining general job skills?
For some kids, it's very much so about learning how to become a chef. For some kids, it's about learning how to run a business. For others, it's about learning how to fill out an application. It's definitely not limited to the culinary arts, but we do have a very strong involvement in that, and it's the primary way that we're operating businesses right now.
What successes have you witnessed so far?
You see kids gaining confidence. You use vocabulary around the kids that they're not used to, and you see them start to repeat it and reuse it and apply it to their lives. My biggest kick right now is teaching kids about dignity of labor -- the pride that can be and should be found from doing a job and doing it well.
Are there legal issues related to age with this kind of work?
Absolutely. Some students are involved as interns and some students are involved as employees. You know, in the kitchen, you can't use a slicer until you're eighteen. You can't use a mixer. We're actually teaching them to make things without machine assistance. For instance, dough is by hand and meat is sliced by hand.
We are in compliance with all of the laws. We're not giving twelve year-olds jobs. If a twelve year-old wants to become work ready, we'll help him get ready for that. But sometimes getting work ready is to tell a twelve year-old kid to be a kid for a few more years.
Is there an age at which you phase kids out of the program?
Students pretty much work during the program on an individual basis, and it has to do with what their desires are. I hope that I have the opportunity to launch some kids into a career, whether it's culinary, whether it's agriculture, whether it's straight entrepreneurship. We have a professional track that we're working on developing right now, and part of that involves having these kids get involved with volunteer opportunities that are really going to make their CV or resume look phenomenal. They're really going to be attractive applicants. We're trying to help them start thinking about where they're going to be going now, so that we can start encouraging them to get involved with those sorts of pathways.
How long are kids involved until? It's really up to them. We aren't in a place where we can provide careers for students, but it's a very long-term involvement. Hopefully they work with us while they're in the process of growing, but when they're beyond the point of what we can offer them, it's our job to find them other work opportunities and growth opportunities. When they should be doing my job, that's when I know we're done.
I think that it is extremely important for youth to gain job skills, but I sometimes wonder if job programs targeted at disadvantaged youth might be based on the unfair assumption that these kids can't or won't go to college. Do you ever think about this issue of altered expectations for kids of different socioeconomic statuses?
Absolutely. For instance, lots of high schools have programs for kids who are not excelling, and Vocationally Integrated Pathways is a typical answer to that. For us, you know, I never went to college. I think college is fine and it's a good place to go, but we need to put value where value is deserved. These kids, when they're done with our program, they should be college ready. We should have encouraged that.
There's a professional track that we're going to push for, and that's a good thing for a lot of kids. I don't feel guilt or the need to push every kid [to college] first and then second to craft and skilled labor and then third to custodial and janitorial work and then fourth to the military. A lot of programs are set up like that. I don't like dividing it and grading careers or pathways. The professional track that we're working on might [lead] a kid one day to be a lawyer. We want this kid to see the whole picture first, and to have some sort of experience.
Have the students been enthusiastic about the projects?
Some of them are. Some of them are really excited about the idea of earning money. Some of them really want to become cooks. There's a really broad level of interest and involvement that we're dealing with. I would say it's a good thing for the kids right now.
Hunter hopes to have the café, kiosk and catering service up and running in October, but he notes that dates are somewhat flexible because the Goodman Community Center is currently looking for funding. Still, he remains optimistic about the projects and their long-term positive impact.