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Old Skool Cafe addresses new school problems

Old SkoolCafé is a 1940s-themed jazz supper club, run by young people. They cook the food, serve it to all guests, and perform their music, dance, and poetry onstage.  Working at the café, they get professional skills and a support network—all while dressed in their 1940s best.

The atmosphere is a big part of what makes Old Skool what it is. There are rich red curtains and the young employees are wearing dress shirts and shoes with black slacks and suspenders. They carry themselves like they’re out of another era, even when they’re performing and dancing hip hop.

And then, there’s the food. Walk through the cafe into the bright kitchen, and you’ll see young people moving quickly, but carefully, to complete each dish on time.

Helping prepare that food is chef Kevin Tucker. He’s there to help the youth develop and improve the skills needed to move on beyond working at the café.

“We look at their chopping skills,” says Tucker, “making sure they can chop. And do they know how to measure?”

Tucker met Old Skool’s founder, Theresa Goines, at a function and was intrigued by her idea of youth in the kitchen.

Goines came up the idea for Old Skool Cafe after having worked in various jobs for law enforcement, including at a ranch for young men convicted of crimes. She wanted to find a way of getting the youth she worked with to stay out of trouble once they left the program.

Goines remembers, “So that was where I started thinking, ‘Alright, so no one's gonna hire them. So I need to create something that’s gonna hire them specifically, that could be sustainable, that can help them make more than minimum wage.’”

Desiree Maldonado credits Goines with making her feel safe to explore a new life.

“Theresa just felt like a guardian angel,” says Maldonado. “I felt like I didn't need to go continue that life, my friends that I was hanging around with, I stopped talking to all of them. Some of them changed with me, they joined Old Skool.”

Maldonado is now a youth manager at Old Skool Cafe. She’s been with the program for four years, since she was 15. As a manager, she is in charge of the rest of the workers as well. She says all that responsibility is a lot different from the way her life used to be.

But Goines says it’s not always so easy for the youth to leave their old ways behind. And things don’t always go smoothly.

“We've all had server's that have been mean, because they've had a bad day,” Goines explains. “So teaching [the youth]: you're in customer service, so, you have to check that stuff at the door, and come in and be professional.”

Leonard Ferguson, 21, is a server at Old Skool. He says he used to be deeply involved with drugs and alcohol and had a troubled home life.  He heard about what Old Skool was doing at a turning point in his life.

“Ever since I came here I stopped doing everything...stopped smoking weed, stopped robbing. I stopped doing all that negative stuff and started doing more stuff that's positive,” Ferguson explains.

Ferguson says it’s easy for him to be positive at the café. And it seems that way for all of the youth. They leave their past and their backgrounds at the door. Whether they’re on stage or in the kitchen, the youth at Old Skool are building new lives for themselves – ones they may keep living, even after the music stops. 

Click the audio player above to listen to the story. 

This story originally aired in 2012.

Crosscurrents youth