A coffee shop that caresPosted: October 8, 2009
blue sky Bakery and Cafe is tucked away on a residential street in Albany Park, and if it weren’t for the chalk sign the cafe puts out every morning, you’d walk right by it. blue sky is a quiet and small cafe, serving fair trade coffee and their own freshly baked goods, and by all appearances, there is nothing to distinguish this coffee shop from the other hundreds or so in Chicago. Don’t be fooled by its humble appearance; blue sky Cafe and Bakery is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization that employs troubled and homeless youth in order to give them job training- so if you’ve been a lazy citizen lately, you can give back to the community just by having a cup of coffee. Simple and instant karma!
blue sky Inn began in 2000, with Lisa Thompson selling her baked goods at farmers markets by operating out of a shared kitchen. blue sky quickly gained a reputation for its freshly baked goods, and last year in May Thompson opened the cafe. Thompson’s original idea was to open an inn (hence the name), a 5 – 8 bedroom bed-and-breakfast that would employ youth as the cooks, gardeners, cleaners, but the investment wasn’t there. Thompson estimates she needs $500,000 to open the bed and breakfast, but because her organization is so small she cannot apply for state or federal grants. Despite a steady increase in business, the cafe is still a long way away from breaking even and still relies heavily on philanthropy.
I sat down with Lisa Thompson the other day, and asked her why she was shunning the capitalistic model. She laughed and said “opening the cafe was never the dream, creating a job environment and opportunities for youth was what I always wanted to do.” The cafe provides “more visibility to the program” than the farmers markets, and rehabilitating the youth in a cafe is perfect since it provides job opportunities in an employment niche “that isn’t concerned with criminal backgrounds” adds Thompson.
I think there are a lot of people trying but I think that the best thing they need are job opportunities. Job workshops and job training is great but I don’t think there is any substitute for actual work experience. It has real consequences, that have customers, demands, schedules, that have fluctuations in day to day scheduling, high pressure situations with deadlines. There is no substitute for that. There are thousands and thousands of young adults in chicago who are willing to work and who need opportunity and they just aren’t available.-Lisa Thompson
Blue Sky employs 2 youth in their program at a time, for 12 week intervals at 25 hours per week, with Tuesday and Sunday off. The youth get paid minimum wage, but they get a raise if they enroll in a GED program. If the youth have a high school diploma, their per hour rate increases to $8.25 (that’s more than I made starting out as a barista at Argo Tea!). The last 2 youth just “graduated”, with one moving on as a retail store manager at Truman College, and the other as a server at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Of the two newest youth in her program, both come from probation officers and Lisa Thompson says they’re the best she’s had so far, citing their motivation and drive as unparalleled. A total of 5 youth have graduated Thompson’s program, with three completing the program last year.
In the past, Thompson would take on youth with learning or mental disabilities, and without case workers, and the trainees would simply vanish after a couple of weeks- youth she doesn’t hire now. “They had the chance, and for some reason they just walked away from it” Thompson says. “If they end up in crisis mode, I don’t want to be the only one they turn to… I don’t want them to depend on me” she adds. Thompson wants to teach these youth all aspects of job training, including proper employer/employee relationships. Thompson estimates she’s trained 25 kids in total, and gotten 4 to enroll in a GED program.
I had a chance to talk to one of the youth Thompson currently employs, 25 year old Aldrea Siler from Minnesota. Siler has enjoyed her experience so far, saying “it’s exciting to come to work every day”. She finds the work relaxing and the cafe atmosphere gives her time to think and concentrate.
I am very fortunate to have a job like this, that continues on and helps you in the end when the program is over, because having felonies makes it hard to find a job.– Aldrea Siler
Siler has every intention of completing the program and says she wants “to stay in the food business, because I like working with food.” Siler plans on attending a small business class at some point:
My dream is to have a soul food restaurant, or some type of seafood restaurant. Hopefully some time in the future, that can happen.
– Aldrea Siler
blue sky Inn takes youth mostly from The Broadway Youth Center as well as case workers and probation officers Thompson has a repertoire with. Thompson did take on a youth referred from the Albany Park Community Center, but the youth disappeared after a couple of weeks. blue sky Inn also conducts an art program for the homeless youth, called blue sky eXpressions.
Besides blue sky Cafe and Bakery, Inspiration Corporation also runs a job training program (Cafe Too) as well as Bright Endeavors, which makes those Dreambean candles you see at farmer’s markets. I spoke briefly with Joe Hollendoner, the Director of the Broadway Youth Center, and he agrees the lack of rehabilitating programs is a problem, “there’s not a lot of employers who are sensitive to homelessness, or programs that provide a tangible work history”.
If you want to read more about Lisa Thompson and the blue sky Inn, here is an interview she did with the Chicagoist last year.