Karli Butler, left, Director of Social Services, and Karen Smith, Director of Operations represent the two equally important kinds of skills Curt’s trainees receive during their ninety-day program.RoundTable photo

This story is the latest in a RoundTable series on workforce development. The first stories dealt with Evanston Township High School and its efforts to prepare students for life after high school. This one and the final two, coming soon, describe how local organizations are helping adults join or rejoin the workforce.

Folks stopping in for a latte, scone or sandwich at one of Curt’s Cafes in Evanston will probably see the sign reading “Dine with Purpose.” 

It is there as shorthand for the nonprofit’s mission statement and to remind customers that there is more than good food being served in these cozy cafes: there is job training and all manner of support for young adults who have struggled with homelessness, the judicial system, poverty and minimal family support. 

Since 2012, Curt’s Café has combined job training with comprehensive life skills training to help level the playing field for young people who need second chances to attain stability and success in their lives.

Susan Treischmann, Executive Director and founder of Curt’s Café, was in her late 40s when she graduated from Oakton College’s two-year certificate program and then went on to DePaul and graduated with coursework in Restorative Justice. 

Though she was a late starter to college because of painful academic failures as a child, she parlayed her strong work ethic into more than two decades of success in the food services industry. 

Before entering college, she became Director of Catering for the famed Chicago Pump Room and then, after more than 25 years, went on to start Food for Thought, a still successful family catering business. 

Ms. Treischmann has said that a café offering job training to at-risk young people became a serious next career idea while she was in a Social Justice class at DePaul University and found herself interacting with groups of angry and despairing young teens housed in Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Center. 

“When I asked them what would have made a difference in their current circumstances, they all agreed: a job,” she says. 

When Curt’s Café on Central Street opened its doors seven years ago, the trainees were young men ages 15-24. 

The Café is still serving young men who, for the most part, are homeless or have unstable housing, have been on a path to incarceration or have already experienced it, have limited education, are living in poverty and have little or no family support. 

In its first three years, Curt’s served 110 young people and turned nobody away.  Trainees are referred by probation officers, social service agencies, City of Evanston outreach staff and other local nonprofit agencies or by friends and former Curt’s trainees.

“Our students are young people who have often been considered hopeless cases or throw-away kids,” said Ms. Treischmann. 

At Curt’s, the young adult trainees encounter committed staff and volunteers who will not let them give up and who see small successes multiply into competencies and attitude changes. Volunteers and staff at Curt’s work with groups of seven to12 young men at a time; each trainee in the program receives three months of both job and life skills training, as well as a daily stipend. 

However, much of what trainees receive is less tangible than such restaurant operation skills as kitchen hygiene and safety, dishwashing, food prep, waiting tables and working  the cash register or barista equipment.

The intangible life skills are equally as important to ensuring that the trainees learn to manage their lives well and are able to become and stay employed.  

Karli Butler, Director of Social Services, is focused on programming that nurtures the inner life of the trainees and helps them overcome trauma and chaos so they can reach their personal goals. 

In spring of 2015, Curt’s South, 1813 Dempster St., opened to expand Ms. Treischmann’s successful workforce model to at-risk young women.

The trainees then and now are often unmarried teen mothers, many of whom have suffered sexual abuse and have given up on school and the likelihood of getting and keeping a job.

Like the male trainees, homelessness and scrapes with law enforcement have been obstacles to future stability and success. 

Curt’s South, like the Curt’s on Central Street, is a casual and cozy place to eat, meet friends, or host meetings.

But Curt’s South has a bit more of the light and colorful ambiance of a summer camp dining hall.  It is located a few blocks south of Evanston Township High School and has the vibe of a good after-school drop-in place. Between the two Curt’s Café locations, more than 200 young adults have completed the program since its inception.

Ms. Treischmann says 50% of the training in both Curt’s Cafes consists of life skills, the day-to-day competencies that build success. 

Curt’s students, both the young women and the young men, receive financial literacy training and guidance in opening a bank account and balancing a checkbook. Trainees receive help with anger and stress management and take part in a three-week meditation course. 

They also learn about nutrition and revisit sex education in classes led by health professionals. 

Because education is key to getting and keeping a job and those young people who do not graduate from high school are three times more likely to be incarcerated, all Curt’s trainees who are not high school graduates study to pass their GED certification exam. 

To bolster reading and discussion skills, as well as to encourage reading for enjoyment, all the trainees regularly participate in a book group led by dedicated and experienced volunteers from the Evanston nonprofit Literature for All of Us.  In all of these endeavors, Curt’s young adults learn by doing and are rewarded by the encouragement, mentoring, affection and strong modeling from the volunteers and staff. “Trust and consistency,” said Board President and long-time Curt’s volunteer Rick Marsh, “that’s what we offer these young adults – and what we hope they will show us and others in return.”

Curt’s Cafe balances its budget with café food sales and catering revenues, as well as with grant funds, corporate and individual donations, in-kind donations and the work of volunteers.

 Volunteers are a significant part of the fuel that moves the Curt’s Café vision forward.  Many of the volunteers are from organizations and businesses that recognize the value of Curt’s mission. 

Curt’s has supportive partners in the Youth Job Center, Coalition for the Homeless, the McGaw YMCA and many other nonprofits. 

One valuable partner is the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, whose services include legal assistance, outreach case management, conflict resolution services and family and group counseling. 

Individual volunteers also play a major role at Curt’s. Volunteers coach the trainees as they learn front-of-the-house and kitchen skills; they work in the café kitchens when the trainees are engaged in group work; they assist with resume-writing and do computer training; they run errands, answer phones and restock shelves; and they sometimes drive trainees to get their driver’s licenses. 

Once every month, the trainees go on a field trip to a museum or special event, and then to lunch at a restaurant, and the drivers are some of Curt’s dedicated volunteers. 

 Sometime this summer, a new Curt’s Café will open in Highland Park to provide workforce training and life skills for underserved young adults. A café location has been secured in downtown Highland Park, on Central Avenue not far from the Metra station.

Meanwhile, plans call for Curt’s South to close and its trainees to be relocated to Curt’s North.

 There is more staff to be hired, more volunteers to recruit and train, more money to be raised and more young people who need caring mentors, job training, social services support and second chances to improve their lives. 

The unattributed quote on the bottom
of Ms. Treischmann’s email pages would make a good sign over the doorway of the newest Curt’s Café: “While no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.”