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Coffee shop provides youth with skills to become employable

By John Longhurst

Winnipeg, Man — It’s the morning lull at Sam’s Place, the time between the opening rush for coffee and the lunch crowd.
There are about a half-dozen people in the coffee shop, café and used bookstore — two women having a meeting, a student doing some studying, one or two people browsing the books, a mother and child playing in the games area at the back.
At the counter is Rachel Braun, making a coffee for a customer. The 14-year-old isn’t an employee. She’s a volunteer.

And Sam’s Place isn’t a usual coffee shop — it’s a social enterprise designed to help youth get ready for employment.
The grade nine student is doing an internship — “learning by doing,” as she puts it.
“I love this place,” says Braun. “I’m learning lots of valuable skills and building up my resume and references.”Volunteer Rachel Braun learning the tricks of the barista trade from Sam's Place volunteer manager Alex StrangeVolunteer Rachel Braun learning the tricks of the barista trade from Sam's Place volunteer manager Alex Strange
She’s also getting experience as a barista — something the aspiring actor jokes could come in handy in the future.
Braun is just one of over 100 young people who receive workplace training every year at Sam’s Place, opened by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba in 2009.
Located in Winnipeg’s Elmwood neighborhood, a lower income area between downtown and the more prosperous East and North Kildonan suburbs, the shop’s goal is to provide youth from the area with opportunities to get ahead economically.
“Our primary mission is to help youth develop work skills, build a resume and get references,” says manager Alison Greenslade.
Greenslade, who once worked at a Starbucks, says the volunteers get a variety of experiences — in the “dish pit” (washing dishes), making food in the kitchen, and at the front of house serving customers.
Volunteers come from various life situations, she says; there are newcomers to Canada, Indigenous youth, kids from lower income families, and students from area high schools doing service hours or practicums.
Most are between 14-18 years-old, although some are older.
“It’s a chance for them to learn skills in a softer environment, a place a little less demanding and intense, learn at their own pace, develop their skills and confidence, give them experience they can take to future employers,” she explains.
Some of the youth find it hard, she says, while for others it’s “super easy.”
“Some are incredible in the kitchen, others struggle up front. We seek to find everyone’s strength,” she shares.
And yes, mistakes are made.
“We view it as part of learning,” she says. “We follow up with them, so they don’t do it again.”
It helps that many customers know the youth are in training. They “are understanding, more patient.”
Volunteers usually stay about three months. When they leave, they’ll have references and a resume — and friendships with each other and staff.
“A lot stay in contact after they are done,” she says.
For Greenslade, who has a business degree, working at Sam’s Place is a “dream job.”
“This is everything I trained for — it’s a business, a non-profit, a ministry, a social enterprise that seeks to make a difference for youth.”
“I want to run it as a business, to benefit our mission.”
Different ways of
measuring success
Ideally, Sam’s Place would be a thriving business, paying all its expenses one cup of coffee, one bowl of soup or a piece of pastry at a time.
But that’s not the case — and Darryl Loewen, Executive Director of MCC Manitoba, is OK with that.
He’s reluctant to share how much the business earns each year, but says the goal is for it “to be as sustainable as it can.”
Financial sustainability isn’t the only bottom line, he notes.
“Sam’s Place exists to help local youth become empowered and get an 
on-ramp into the workforce.”
For Loewen, it’s also important to him — and to MCC — to see youth who might otherwise have a hard time getting jobs get valuable experience, so they can find work.
It’s a vision shared by volunteer manager and youth engagement coordinator Alex Strange.
“If we wanted to be busier, we would locate in Wolseley” — a hip peace-and-granola part of town —  “but this is where people need jobs. That’s why we are here.”
As a result, Sam’s Place survives on a mix of sales, small government and foundation grants, some donations, and support from MCC.
The payoff is seeing youth, some who come from difficult circumstances, get ready for the workforce.
“We have people whose parents are struggling financially,” he says, noting that some volunteers come from families where they’ve never seen parents hold a steady job.
“Not all of them are ready to be employed,” Strange says. “Some really struggle. We could pass on them, but who are we if we only take the best?”
Some of the youth come from unstable homes. Strange has taken a few youth to his home for the night after an evening shift because they had nowhere else to go.
“I have a very understanding wife,” he says.
While the goal is to help youth develop hard skills — to make food, make drinks, work a till — Sam’s Place also teaches soft skills such as how to work with others, be presentable, interact with the public and dealing with conflict and stress.
It isn’t always easy, he notes. “There are times when we need to be patient and understanding.”
What about theft? “The till has been short a few times,” he says. “But we try to trust these kids. Often nobody else does.”
“Gaining Confidence”
At 28, Adam Tetreault isn’t the usual kind of volunteer. Sam’s Place is just as important to him at his stage in life.Adam Tetreault cuts peppers. Volunteering at Sam's Place has helped him gain confidence and experience he hopes will lead to a job.Adam Tetreault cuts peppers. Volunteering at Sam's Place has helped him gain confidence and experience he hopes will lead to a job.
“I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety for years,” he says.
In the past, “anxiety prevented me from even applying for work.” Now he hopes the experience he’s getting at Sam’s Place will help him get a job.
“I like the atmosphere, I’m gaining confidence,” he says of the two days a week he works in the kitchen.
“I enjoy food prep, and I’m making new friends. It’s a very encouraging environment.”
As he goes back to the kitchen, I think of an adage attributed to Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
At Sam’s Place, they’ve taken that to heart — wanting to achieve as much business success as possible but knowing there are many other goals that won’t show up on a traditional bottom line.
Or, as Greenslade puts it: “We are not a coffee shop that trains youth. We are a training facility that happens to run a coffee shop.” ◆