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 Another scone or one more cup of coffee may tempt a customer at Curt’s Café, but the seconds at Curt’s Café are often unseen. These are the second chances – and third, fourth or more, if needed – Susan Trieschmann and her staff offer the young men and women who struggle to beat the odds of their often chaotic lives.

The two Curt’s cafés – North at 2922 Central St., and South at 1813 Dempster St. – offer a three-month training course to young men and women who are living on the margins of society, and in some cases who have served time in prison but wish to make a change in their lives.

 “We target the most at-risk youth we can,” says Ms. Trieschmann, who founded both cafés with the mission to help these young men and women who live on the periphery of society.

 “Most of our boys are homeless. Most of our girls are in unsafe housing,” she says.

“Boys, because they are felons, cannot live with their families in subsidized housing. Most of the girls are in an abusive relationship. A lot will stay with their abuser for the sake of the child. If they go to a shelter, since most are underage, their children will be taken away,” Ms. Trieschmann says. 

Christine Leone, a social worker at Curt’s Café South until mid-July, said the young women there include teens who are under-resourced but do not have children; teens who are mothers; and young mothers between the ages of 18 and 25. Some are dealing with trauma, she says, “which can stem from anything like experiencing domestic violence, sexual abuse or sexual assault, gang violence, death or injury of a friend or loved one, emotionally or psychologically abusive parental or familial relationships, and/or an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness.” 

The teen mothers may experience similar obstacles and in addition may face shame at being young unwed mothers, the loss of friends and family unable to accept the pregnancy, and the challenges of having adult responsibilities, Ms. Leone says.

For the young mothers over 18, says Ms. Leone, “access to child care, housing instability, food security, and in some cases managing a mental illness continue to be stressors.” All these are magnified by poverty, racism, and gender inequality, she adds.

Getting to Curt’s

Many of the young men and women are referred to Curt’s through the Youth Job Center, the Moran Center, Family Focus, or other social service agencies – and some apply to the program on their own. Ms. Trieschmann says she chooses the students whom she believes are ready to make a change in their lives and who could benefit from the Curt’s program.

The social-service provider, the director of operations, and chef at each café decide whom to accept. “There is a formal process we follow that allows us to evaluate the student based on needs, willingness to try to change, and mental-health stability,” Ms. Trieschmann says.

The program does not cater to youth “who are going to be able to succeed on their own,” Ms. Trieschmann says. Nor is the selection based on the past: “We don’t look at what they’ve done.”

The Work of Getting to Work

Getting to work is a job in itself, one that can scream defeat.

“They are tired; they are always hungry,” Ms. Trieschmann says, but many do not want to go to soup kitchens for food, because, she has been told, “It’s like looking in the mirror. … They learn how to work through the exhaustion. It’s hard to work, though, when you’ve not been able to sleep, been beaten. When they show up for work, I think it’s wonderful they got out of bed.”

But most do come to work, and they learn in incremental steps. For a small stipend, the 8-10 young men at Curt’s North and a similar number of teen mothers at Curt’s South learn restaurant skills. Staff at Curt’s are versed in Cultivating Unique Restaurant Training – the acronym of Curt’s Café.

The young men and women have the opportunity to learn job skills and life skills. They start in the back of the café, doing dishes and café maintenance, then move to the kitchen to learn about food preparation. After that, they can start to work the sandwich line and then the hot line, each of these stations involving different skill sets. When each one is ready, he or she can move to the front to master busing, customer service, working the cash register, and “making healthy drinks and coffee drinks like lattes and cappuccinos,” says Ms. Trieschmann.

The goal is for the rotation to take three months, but “if it takes four months or five months that’s okay too,” Ms. Trieschmann says. “We work with people, and they don’t always fit into the same mold.”

Learning restaurant skills may be the easy part. Learning to work and to keep coming to work can be daunting for someone whose home has never had a strong advocate or role model for work and who has been told for years that she or he would end up a failure. 

“They have to learn to work. And that’s a hard lesson to learn. … We have to teach them what work is,” says Ms. Trieschmann.

“It’s really hard to change the narrative, when they’ve been told they are stupid, they are failures, they will never be able to get a job,” Ms. Trieschmann says. “They work so hard every day to change.”

In some of these young men and women, though, the failure mentality is so ingrained that they are just waiting to be fired, Ms. Trieschmann says: “A lot of kids expect that – wait for that – to be kicked out.”

Slip-ups are expected. “They are teenagers. Most teenagers in general make mistakes, as they should to learn and grow.  Our students are no exception.” Those students who have been in prison usually stop their emotional and mental development when they are locked up “so they come out at 19 years old with a 14-year-old capacity,” Ms. Trieschmann says.

Social workers assess the strengths of the students and of the surrounding community – as well as the barriers – in order to help students expand their support networks, help them access benefits, link them to resources – for housing, as an example – and to provide them with information “that will allow them to make informed decisions about their own lives,” Ms. Leone says.

The social workers also “listen to the students. I mean, really listen, because they will tell you what they need for their own economic and social mobility. … Their lives are often unpredictable, given the challenges they face; and the more rigid the program rules are, the less we are able to think outside of the box to adequately serve our youth,” Ms. Leone says.  

There is an informal mentoring program for the young men and young women, Ms. Trieschmann says, and “We are working on growing it.”

A No-Exit Café

The doors to both Curt’s Cafés are always open to present and former students alike.

 “We don’t really kick anyone out – they‘re not going to learn that way,” says Ms. Trieschmann. “We give them all many, many tries if they can prove that they are at least trying to move their lives forward. We’re not really there to help them – we’re there to help them grow. … We give them space.”

Even those who have been caught stealing at the café are welcomed at the front of the café. “If they steal, they can come in and eat and use the computers, but they can’t go behind the counter,” says Ms. Trieschmann.

Those who leave voluntarily can always reapply, and Curt’s graduates can have one free meal each day at either café.

Life Skills To Go

The months at Curt’s also include training in how to negotiate what many would call ordinary daily life. There are classes every day in such things as financial literacy, anger management, table etiquette, art therapy, and current events.

Each student meets one-on-one weekly with a social worker at the café.   

Ms. Leone says, “The ability to learn new skills or to put the customer first is rarely a cognitive or educational problem.  If there is difficulty, it is usually because basic life needs are not being met [food, shelter, medical and child care] or there is psychological trauma or psychiatric health issue that is not being addressed. Typically once these problems are being addressed, learning new skills happens quickly, and students are able to thrive.  The challenge is being able to address these problems in the context of a working café, particularly since many of these issues require long-term maintenance and/or are very complex.

“I have come to the conclusion that to be able to focus on work, the students have to be able to feel that they and their children have a roof over their head that night, will have enough to eat over the weekend, their children are safely cared for while at work, any physical and/or mental health crises are being treated, and to feel respected as a whole and complex human being and not seen as a one-dimensional ‘at-risk youth.’”

In addition to students’ getting help in resolving or addressing their immediate situations, “We also help them find housing, get state IDs, drivers licenses, and then ultimately we help them write resumes, practice interviewing and then we take them to apply for jobs,” says Ms. Trieschmann. Those who have not graduated from high school meet with a GED teacher.

“We generally keep them in the program until we find a job for them,” Ms. Trieschmann adds.

Beyond the Café

Different yardsticks can measure the success of the two cafés since the first one, Curt’s North, opened in 2012 and the second one, Curt’s South, opened last year. There have been 160 graduates, most of whom hold jobs. The recidivism rate for those who had been in jail or prison before starting at Curt’s – most of them young men – is about 3%, Ms. Trieschmann says, compared with rates from 40% to 80% or higher in Illinois, according to a 2013 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Curt’s alums have found entry-level positions in several local businesses such as Edzo’s Burgers, McDonald’s, Panera, TJ Maxx, Enterprise Cars, Valli Produce, and Whole Foods.

“Jobs are a given [measure of success],” says Ms. Trieschmann, “but we look at personal goals being met, like working with team members they didn’t originally get along with; looking customers in the eye and saying ‘Hi’; remembering how to make things in the kitchen even if they slept on the street all night; being respectful to the manager even if they don’t like the consequences they have been given.”

Ms. Leone adds, “Each time a student meets a milestone specific to the café – such as [earning a] food-handler’s certificate, learning how to make cheesecake or a latte, or strengthening customer-service skills – is a  success.” She also says success can be measured in how students have overcome their personal obstacles. “For example the ability to access food, shelter, child care, and psychiatric care would be a success. Expanding the social networks and strengthening relationships with loved ones or managing a co-parenting relationship would be a success.”

For the single mothers, negotiating child-care, school, and work – often with little or no family support – is a continual difficulty. Ms. Leone says, “Even though they may be ‘job ready,’ job stability is often not a linear, but a cyclical, process until they are able to gain enough experience and/or education that allows them to obtain a traditional 9-5, Monday-Friday job.  Curt’s, like many other job-training programs, continues to find ways to grapple with this reality.”

While Ms. Trieschmann and her staff deal in second chances and the students in second helpings, community members have stepped forward as seconds. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl has been “very, very supportive” of the program as have Police Chief Richard Eddington and the City’s Department of Youth Services, she says.

Café employees “along with many, many volunteers help shore up the classes and all the other individual challenges,” Ms. Trieschmann says.

Many residents make a point of patronizing one café or the other on a regular basis – “dining with a mission,” as a sign at Curt’s South suggests.

“The community keeps us going and continues to come in, even if things aren’t always perfect,” Ms. Trieschmann says.

Ms. Leone says, however, she thinks the community must do more for young single mothers: “Meeting the needs of under-resourced youth and young parents is a community responsibility; and the existing organizations in Evanston need to continue to collaborate, find new ways of eliminating the obstacles young single mothers face, and build on the strengths that they and our community have. …Nationally and locally, there is a lot of emphasis on early childhood interventions, pregnancy prevention, and violence prevention, and not a lot of emphasis on the supports that a woman needs as a young single mother. …

“The challenges that young single mothers face are not just their problem, they are our problem; and if we don’t address these problems through a lens of trauma and inequality, we will continue to keep spinning our wheels nationally and locally, and we will lose the diversity that Evanstonians hold so dear.”

RoundTable series: Reaching Out to Opportunity Youth and Young Adults. Evanston has many youth and young adults who lack high school or college degrees, lack jobs and job opportunities, or who need help in improving their life chances. Some have been drawn into the criminal justice system. A number of dedicated people and organizations here are working 24/7 to reach out to these youth and young adults and to enhance their opportunities and lives. Part 1 looked at the work being done by the City’s Youth and Young Adult Division. Part 2 (June 30) looked at the Moran Center. This part looks at the two Curt’s Cafés.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...