A Recipe for Success
As a child, Alexis remembers being teased, pushed around, and hurt — both physically and emotionally. Born on the streets, she was adopted by an aunt when she was four. At age 15, she was kicked out of the only home she had known and sent to live with abusive grandparents. Since then, her journey has taken her to juvenile detention, a stay in the Idaho state hospital, and life in a group home until she aged out when she turned 18. About to become homeless, her counselor found space for her in a transition program, which is where she still lives. Around the same time, Alexis also found Life’s Kitchen — a life-skills and culinary arts program in Boise for at-risk young people ages 16 to 24. For Alexis, Life’s Kitchen provided a recipe for success — with an assist from volunteer student legal partners from Concordia University School of Law.
Priceless training that lasts a lifetime
For Deonda Thompson, the Education Director for Life’s Kitchen, the term “at-risk” young adults covers a wide swath of the people she’s been helping for years. “Some have mental health issues,” she says. “Some are young parents, some never finished high school. Others graduated from high school but are floundering. And a fair share have been in trouble or even in jail.” Alexis was one such at-risk student, or trainee as they’re called, during the spring and summer of 2016.
The 16-week Life’s Kitchen program teaches trainees to be reliable team players who can take direction. A passion for cooking is a must. Groups with a maximum of 15 trainees work Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm. A 90% attendance policy is strictly adhered to. Trainees will learn the ins and outs of life in the kitchen from the ground up —going from dishwashers and prep cooks to line assistants and finally a line cook. Knife skills, kitchen math, basic cooking techniques, and safe food handling are all part of the daily training. Their payment? “Instead of a paycheck, they receive experience and opportunity,” says Thompson. Even though it’s a huge commitment, for these trainees, the program is worth its weight in gold.
Trainees will learn the ins and outs of life in the kitchen from the ground up —going from dishwashers and prep cooks to line assistants and finally a line cook
So what’s a typical day like for trainees like Alexis? Many ride the bus to the Life’s Kitchen building in downtown Boise. Punctuality is just as important as attendance. Trainees make breakfast, then attend a morning meeting where they review the prior day and plan for the day ahead. After that, they work in the kitchen all morning, prepping for the Life’s Kitchen on-site café. The restaurant serves lunch four days a week, with trainees working both the front and back of the house. Life’s Kitchen also has contracts to provide soup for 150 people each day at a local homeless shelter, as well as food for a respite care center, after school programs, and other area nonprofits. Following lunch service, those who need it — roughly 30% of the trainees — receive GED tutoring. Then it’s time for life-skill classes, with a different class taught each afternoon. That’s where Concordia University law students come in.
From catering client to pro bono partner
Jodi Nafzger, Concordia Law’s Director of Experiential Learning, first met the staff of Life’s Kitchen at a catered event the law school was hosting — with Life’s Kitchen as the caterer. One thing led to another and before long, the school volunteered to become the “legal education” partner for the program. As a Lutheran university, the idea of giving back to people in need is a natural fit for Concordia Law’s mission of preparing leaders for the transformation of society.
“Very rarely do our law students get to teach,” says Nafzger. “This was a great way for us to put our students in front of the classroom rather than in the seats of the classroom.” Once a month on Fridays, Concordia Law students meet with the trainees at Life’s Kitchen. Considered “subject area experts,” the law student volunteers teach topics that range from tenant rights, signing leases, voting rights, and child custody to domestic violence, identity theft, and date rape. “While our students can’t provide legal advice,” Nafzger says, “what they do provide is accessibility. The Life’s Kitchen trainees get to meet students who are in professional school and are often closer to their own age and in a collegial setting.” Concordia Law students research their topics and create presentations, using their area of expertise to best benefit the Life’s Kitchen crew.
Concordia Law student teaching a Life’s Kitchen seminar.
One Concordia student volunteer, Heidi Burgoyne, has a background in finances, so she addressed the topics of taxes and money matters. Kenny Wait, another Concordia student volunteer, is a stand-up comedian when he’s not in law school. He used his performance skills to put the Life’s Kitchen students at ease and bring the material to life when discussing potentially dry topics like how to get a driver’s license and how to get car insurance. As Nafzger sees it, this gives her law students a chance to do something they’re passionate about in order to achieve some of their mandatory 50 hours of pro bono service. “Volunteering for Life’s Kitchen is less about checking the box and more about doing something to help these trainees succeed.”
Making a difference, one trainee at a time
“I love cooking and baking and wanted to learn more about the culinary world from actual chefs,” says Alexa, now a Life’s Kitchen graduate. “I got a great foundation and learned how to work in a restaurant kitchen,” she says. But for Alexa, Life’s Kitchen went well beyond helping her pursue her interest in the culinary arts. “All my life, I have been told at home that I was worthless and wouldn’t ever amount to anything. The staff and volunteers at Life’s Kitchen gave me a new outlook on myself. I learned that I matter and that someone is always there to talk. I learned that I have a support system and people who can help me. I got my GED. I have a learner’s permit. And my goal is to go to college to study psychology. I have a future.”
Cooking up good things
According to Thompson, roughly 45% of Life’s Kitchen’s funding comes from businesses, with the remaining 55% adding up from grants, foundations, and donations. Now in their 13th year, Life’s Kitchen has purchased an empty lot with the dream to one day have a larger new facility. “For now, we have to be smart about how we use our small space,” she says. “We get the bulk of our trainees as referrals from the juvenile justice system. It’s an unfortunate reality that there are more young people who need our help than there are available slots.”
Both Thompson and Nafzger see the partnership between Life’s Kitchen and Concordia University School of Law as being a perfect match – and the second wave of Concordia law students is already hard at work teaching monthly courses. “Part of what differentiates us as a law school is our dedication to service and giving back to the community. Being able to help people in need — especially young people — is truly a blessing. The fact that our students make a positive difference while being able to work on their teaching and presentation skills is icing on the cake.” And when Life’s Kitchen is involved, you know the cake will be amazing.