The Tucson YWCA is opening a new café in its lobby, but the mission has more to do with social welfare than steamed milk.

What was a coffee cart is now converted to a permanent coffee shop. Still a work in progress: training at-risk teen girls to work at the café, serving coffee, making food, and catering events.

The YWCA is starting with no experience in running this kind of food service program, but it has an example from which to learn. Café 54 downtown has been training people recovering from mental illness to work in the service industry for the past eight years.

Peggy Starr serves food, coaches her peers, and is working to strengthen her skills at Café 54. She battled severe depression until she got help from the Gospel Rescue Mission. Her therapist suggested she try getting a job at Café 54, and now she's planning a future helping others do the same.

It's a pattern the Tucson YWCA hopes to replicate, said Liane Hernandez, community life director at the YWCA.

She runs the café, which opened this month, and will be manage the employees and trainees as she builds the program this year. She plans to hire 10 people in July or August. In the meantime, the café is working out its beginning bumps.

Hernandez is targeting girls who are aging out of the foster care system, some of the most at-risk in the community, she said.

”You know, you hit 18 and you’re out. And there’s so many issues surrounding that population," Hernandez said. "They have incredible underemployment, they have lack of education, they have lack of relationship building, because of, by virtue of, their history.”

Café 54
The cafés are not competing, they each aim to be a place for patrons to get daily sustenance, and employees to get lifelong job skills.

This downtown establishment is known for freshly-baked rosemary bread rolls offered to anyone who orders lunch. It's open Monday through Friday for midday meals only, but Mindy Berenstein, the executive director, is knee-deep in plans to open a food cart to expand the work opportunities for employees.

She opened Café 54 more than eight years ago.

“The goal of the café is to help community see that people with psychiatric diagnoses can and do want to work. That in our society employment is probably the number one way people identify themselves,” Berenstein said.

This model, serving the employees and the public at the same time, is called a social enterprise model. Nonprofits are turning to these business models to carry out their social missions while also turning a profit to fund other work.

Bernstein cautioned the YWCA Café, and others, that this kind of work is not always a profit-turning endeavor. She has help from the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona to make ends meet, and said YWCA should keep that in mind.

Other advice includes maintaining high expectations, having patience, and trusting employees, Bernstein said.

“Leave opportunities open for that individual’s gifts and abilities to be expressed; not to make an assumption about a person, let that person sort of drive their own journey,” she said.

She also had to learn from experience that unconditional support can mean tough love.

"It’s OK to pull a person out of the training program until they deal with their issues, and then can come back again," Bernstein said. Keeping that in mind helps the cafe with "addressing self esteem, which is so eroded in any disenfranchised person.”

People who come from background of mental illness, or in the YWCA's case, years in the foster care system, leads to predictable issues, she said.

“The impact of coming from any environment where an individual is at risk immediately starts to shave away self esteem and confidence," she said.

It's important for employers to keep in mind "these might be people’s first places of employment, or the first employment support program that they have ever entered into,” Bernstein said.

Success Story

Starr, the Café 54 employee, said she's grateful for the experience.

“When I started it was getting to know the different jobs here and just getting back into working," she said. "And then as it progressed they started training me for training other people, I’ve gotten into go into a job coach role.”

Six months later, Starr is a job coach for her restaurant peers. She is also working on her resume, job applications and developing skills she will need for her next career move.

She is focused on developing physical stamina for the work day, while improving her confidence. She has learned to be gentle with people when trying to teach them, and wants to keep working with others, she said.

"My goal is to go into peer support in the behavioral health system,” Starr said. "That means helping other people that have been through similar issues to myself and helping them the way other people helped me get back on my feet.”

YWCA Café
So far, the YWCA is using donations and loans to pay its start-up cost of $12,000, Hernandez said. Once the coffee cart is up and running, she'll move trainees into catering for events in the YWCA's two meeting rooms.

“They could learn customer service skills and what we’re hoping is that after a year we can utilize the contacts that we have in the community to help them with job placement," Hernandez said.

Hernandez has worked at a number of Tucson restaurants, and in the past few years helped the chefs who opened downtown restaurants Hub, Playground and Proper. Food service is a way into other careers, she said, and that's what she'd like to teach the women at YWCA Café.

"Ultimately what we’re seeing is the service industry is an accessible field. So even if they don’t have GEDs or they don’t have extensive training and education they can get into food service or the service industry," she said. "We want to give them a glimpse of what that could be.”

She's pulling from her own experiences, she said.

“I think that food is an incredible way to build relationships and build community," she said. "I want to try and instill that in the trainees as well – to the extent that you can."

In a lot of ways, it's trial and error, she added.

"For some it will be a job and that’s fine. For others, they might find their passion and that would be extraordinary," Hernandez said.

The cafe is just getting started, but it is learning from others such as Café 54, and YWCA's throughout the country operating social enterprise businesses.

“That’s been great too, talking to other YWCAs that are doing the same or similar things," Hernandez said. She appreciates the chance to ask: "How did you do this? What was your thought process in this? What worked? What didn’t work?”