Café Augustine Serves Hope to Young People

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Darres Jackson hasn’t had the best of luck in finding and keeping a job, especially since he lacks a college education. Moreover, the lack of a support system further stacked the deck against him as he sought to improve himself.

Now, at age 32, Jackson says he’s found direction, established a work ethic and made the proper connections to better himself through a new program the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown administers.

“It’s exactly what I need at this time in my life right now,” Jackson says.

The program is Café Augustine, a café inside the Newport branch of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County that launched its soft opening the week of Sept. 14. The official opening is scheduled Oct. 12.

“I’ve been in the program since July,” Jackson says, who just finished talking to guests and cleaning some tables. “I’m proud of this program and proud to be involved in it. They teach life skills, they’ve helped me meet people that I’m able to build a repertoire with that could help me get a job in the future.”

The café staff has trained Jackson in several facets of the restaurant business. “One thing about the program is that they train you in all different levels,” he says. I’ve been serving, I’ve been hosting, I’ve been on the grill, and I’ve run the counter – I’m pretty much ready for any area they want to put me in.”

Café Augustine isn’t just a lunch counter, emphasizes its executive director, the Rev. Edward Brienz. “It’s an inner city program for people who have been removed from the workplace,” he says. “For whatever reason, they don’t have the contacts and connections.”

The idea germinated 10 years ago, when Brienz was part of a delegation from the area that went to New Orleans to help victims in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There, he came upon a remarkable initiative.

The effort was called Café Reconcile, an organization that provided young people with the life skills, discipline and job training they needed to become productive members of society.

That program, now about 20 years old, boasted an impressive success rate, Brienz says. On average, 80% of those who had difficultly holding down a job when they entered are either employed or used their skills to advance their education.

“I said, ‘we need this in Youngstown,” Brienz recalls, noting other local dignitaries agreed after they too learned of the program. “It’s a second chance at life skills for young people who are disconnected from the working world,” he says.

Café Reconcile led to Café Augustine, named for the early Christian theologian and philosopher who led a hedonistic life as a youth, repented in his ‘30s and was ordained a priest.

“One of the things we attempt to do is to unite young folks who don’t have a strong connection with the working world to the values employers are going to be asking them to work with,” he says.

Café Augustine is roughly a four-month personal growth and work readiness program operated independently of, but is located in, former café space in the library, Brienz says. The café targets young adults ages 16 to 24 through referrals from churches, juvenile court, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and other life-skills development organizations.

Three weeks of the program is dedicated to enhancing the person’s life skills – that is, teaching proper workplace attire, communication, acceptable manners, punctuality and teamwork. Then, the students spend three months on the payroll at Café Augustine where they put those life skills to work. “The most important part is teaching the decorum to hold a job,” he says.

Many of the students have held jobs before, but those jobs didn’t last because many lacked the basic skills necessary to hold down those jobs, Brienz says. Café Augustine helps redirect their thinking and expand their capabilities.

“There are a lot of kids that need a little bit of help,” Brienz says. “It’s about how to learn teamwork, how to defuse racism in the workplace, and preparing them to learn how to do a job. We’re trying to catch them before they fall through the cracks.”

Among the other goals of the café are teaching students to make rational decisions, accept personal responsibility, develop personal and family finances, and to build relationships and trust.

The restaurant staff mentors students in five roles – stewards, floor service and as waiters, pantry chef, sous chef and department chef. Each class can accommodate 15 students with the café can offering four to eight classes a year.

“There’s no religion test, no tuition, but we expect the best attendance and participation,” Brienz says.

Abraham Covarrubius, café front-of-the house manager, says he arrived in Youngstown just more than two months ago. “I met Father Ed and I was looking for a job, and he offered me this opportunity to be a part of this great community and great establishment.”

Covarrubius, born in El Paso, Texas, but reared in Mexico, says the goal is to help young people who have fallen through the cracks, and provide them a role model on how to be a part of society. “A lot don’t know the importance of getting up early and showing up everyday someplace to earn a living.”

Job placement is another important objective of the café, Brienz says. Students who complete the program are offered a four-week paid internship at various local food providers. Then, the companies are encouraged to retain and mentor them beyond entry-level positions. Or, students can use the skills they’ve learned here and advance themselves through higher education.

“I want to be a famous chef,” says 21-year-old Charmonique North, who wants to attend culinary school when she completes the program. “I feel like I’m more confident in getting a job at a restaurant instead of being shy and nervous.”

At startup, Café Augustine will serve lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with the intent of expanding hours later on.

Brienz says that the library has proven a great partner, and that it took many agencies, people and community groups to turn this idea into a reality.

“We are excited to partner with Café Augustine on a program that helps young people fulfill their potential,” adds Heidi M. Daniel, library executive director. “We believe what the library offers in materials and services provide a similar opportunity.”

The project has also received help from private donations and a $50,000 Community Development Block Grant awarded to the Oak Hill Collaborative, which is temporarily acting as fiscal agent for the cafe, says Patrick Kerrigan, executive director of the collaborative.

“We’ve provided a variety of administrative services,” he says. This included preparing applications for the block grant and 501(c)3 status for the café.

“No single group could pull this together, it takes a community to do this,” Brienz says. “And this is the right thing to do.”

Pictured: Rev. Edward Brienz, executive director of the program, shows a poster that lists what he is teaching.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.