LONDON, Ont. - From the outside, except for the slightly unusual name, you might not suspect there's anything special about the YOU Made It Cafe in downtown London. But for 16 young people a year, the cafe is a place of new, maybe even life-changing, beginnings.

The cafe is operated by Youth Opportunities Unlimited, an independent, non-profit social service agency that offers a comprehensive program of employment services to youth dealing with homelessness, unemployment and/or lack of education. YOU has been around for more than 20 years, but the cafe is only a year old.

YOU generally serves young people 16 to 24, "but there's no hard and fast rule," says Christine Dirks, director of marketing and communications. They may be referred by other agencies, but word of mouth among youth is the most common way they find YOU. In all its programs, the organization serves at least 3,600 individuals a year, but that could translate into upwards of 40,000 contacts

Inside the cafe, two large blackboards list the full breakfast, lunch and beverage menus (it's not open for dinner) and a third promotes the day's soup and salad specials. Selections run the gamut from pizza and burgers to gourmet sandwiches and pasta dishes, all made from scratch. Eclectic art decorates the walls and there is a bank of coffee makers and urns. Customers order and pick up their food at the counter to take out or eat at one of more than a dozen tables in the spacious facility.

But the real action happens back in the kitchen, says Lois Holden, manager of enterprise services for YOU. There, under the tutelage and mentorship of executive chef Ricardo Cavaco, a sous chef and four part-time staffers, four new trainees every 13 weeks learn how to slice and dice, how to read a recipe and measure, food preparation techniques, how to assemble a dish and sometimes actual cooking. At the front of the house, they learn about customer service, how to run the cash register and make fancy coffees.

As a group, besides serving cafe customers, they make about 3,000 jars of jams, jellies, spreads, salsas, relishes, chutneys and barbecue sauces a year, which are sold at the store, at a Covent Garden Market kiosk in London and at special events and which also are wholesaled locally to a high-end grocery store. This part of the program has been running since 2004 and, before the cafe opened, operated out of church kitchens.

They're also under contract to supply 1,200 to 1,300 meals a week to Meals on Wheels and have two other much smaller meal-supply contracts. Last week they held their main annual fundraiser, a breakfast for 650 at the London Convention Centre.

The cafe also has a catering menu, but that part of the program has taken something of a backseat because of the meal contracts, says Holden.

"The kitchen is always busy."

Involvement with YOU is strictly voluntary. The trainees have to apply for their paying jobs and, before they begin, they must get certified in safe food handling.

But the training is about much more than just food, she says.

"A huge part of what we're training them in is employability skills — how to be punctual, how to be reliable and why, what employers expect."

They work 30 hours a week at the cafe, but additional time may be spent learning how to write a resume, do a job search and develop interview skills or taking general educational development (GED) classes conducted by YOU toward a high-school equivalency certificate.

In return, part of YOU's mandate is to help trainee graduates get jobs in the private sector. Their success rate is more than 80 per cent, Holden says proudly.

Most cities have organizations that offer elements of the YOU program — employment counselling, GED classes or skills training — says Dirks. But she's not aware of another program in the country that provides such a comprehensive "wrap-around" service, from first contact to employment.

"It's how we take all those pieces — skills training, education, employment and more — and fit them so that one youth is not just in one stream, but we integrate them into others to give them the best possible outcome."

Candace DeBrum, 21, is one of the cafe staffers and mentors, but from July to November last year, she was one of the trainees. She says she had never done any cooking before her cafe training and "learned a lot about foods I didn't even know existed." Now, besides working the front of the house, serving customers, running the cash register and mentoring new trainees, she also cooks a lot of healthy food for herself, from scratch.

At the cafe, one of her favourite jobs is the Meals on Wheels program, which her grandmother used to subscribe to.

"I love doing that. Now she's passed away, but helping make the meals helps me feel better, knowing that the older people are actually getting healthy food that's good and prepped."

But she doesn't think she'll stay in the food business. Before her involvement with YOU, she didn't have any long-term goals. Now she's planning to study early childhood education at college.

"These people are awesome. I don't know where I'd be without them."

Follow YOU Made It Cafe on Twitter: twitter.com/YMICafe or like them on facebook.

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