By Rebecca Krause
Nineteen-year-old Cavren Sims saunters around Liberty’s Kitchen like she owns the place. This is quite the feat for someone who first arrived here two months ago, quiet, overwhelmed, unemployed, and pregnant.
“I came in, did three weeks of orientation, and ever since then Liberty’s Kitchen is like home,” Cavren says. “Since I’ve been here for a while, my whole goal is—y’know, since I’m having a baby—is to not only make a better life for myself, but a better life for my child,” Cavren says.
Sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of Mid-City, the ReFresh Project—a 2014 community initiative aiming to offer the neighborhood better access to healthy foods—provides a stark, clean contrast to the run-down nature of the neighborhood. A brand new Whole Foods store occupies most of the Refresh Project building, and sitting snug off to the side is Liberty’s Kitchen.
The cafe is small, bright, and tidy, reminiscent of a quieter, homier upscale coffee shop. Patrons dine on food prepared in the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Teaching Kitchen (a contribution from the aforementioned charity devoted to assisting non-profits that service individuals in need) by students who certainly wouldn’t be found in most kitchens across the city, at least not until they’ve graduated from the Liberty’s Kitchen Youth Development Program.
Liberty’s Kitchen, founded in 2008, recently moved to its current location and is continually looking to expand. The program was initially created in an effort to help rebuild New Orleans after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Over the years, it has welcomed hundreds of young people in need. Recently, Liberty’s Kitchen has been in the process of adding a new aspect to its Youth Development program by offering students the opportunity to stay on for an additional eight months to increase their skills, knowledge, and experience.
“The students, from start to finish, are more or less going to have the same experience, and everyone’s going to do the same things because part of it’s finding out what you like,” says Jorie Kirschbaum, the program’s Development Director. Jorie describes the program as a four month long stint during which students participate in three weeks of orientation, then move on to learn cooking and customer service skills, and eventually are assigned to an externship at a local Starbucks, hotel, or restaurant.
“When you go there [to the externship], they expect highly of you,” Cavren says, visibly excited about the prospect of getting back into the workforce as a more skilled, more knowledgeable employee.
Cavren’s class, like the many that have come before and the many that will come after, includes students ranging in age from 16 to 24 who are out of school, unemployed, and in need of an opportunity to turn their lives around. Liberty’s Kitchen gives them that opportunity. Should they choose to stick with it and graduate, many end up not only with a job, but also armed with myriad customer service and kitchen skills taught to them by the Liberty’s Kitchen team.
Before finding a temporary home at Liberty’s Kitchen, Cavren was struggling her way through an unreliable job at McDonald’s, reminding herself that a job is a job and money is money. There she wasn’t wearing a crisp white chef’s jacket or a simple black cap donning the name of her program. She wasn’t proudly cataloguing all the places that make up her new classroom—the cafe, the spacious kitchen, the dry storage, the walk-in freezer and the cozy community garden. She wasn’t listing off dishes she’s created recently alongside her team of classmates, and she certainly wasn’t greeting her colleagues like she had all the time in the world to talk to each of them individually. But now, all of that is commonplace.
In the state of Louisiana, 3 in 10 women become pregnant before the age of twenty, according to recent statistics. Teen pregnancy is a leading cause for high school drop-outs, which inevitably snowballs into a more difficult time finding employment, providing for a child, and—in New Orleans as well as many other cities across the nation—coping with the realities of poverty. As of early 2015, the New Orleans child poverty rate has soared to 39%, well above the national average, and low income is largely to blame. In order to live comfortably above the poverty line, single parents must bring in a salary of around $22 an hour—a difficult and unlikely reality for the single mother households in New Orleans, which make up an astounding 48% of all families in the city. Considering that ⅓ of single mothers in the city are not employed at all, bringing in a $22 wage is a pipe dream. For any young mother in Cavren’s shoes, it is essential to find work that pays well so that she can take care of her child. That’s where Liberty’s Kitchen comes in.
In the relaxed, intimate break room where the students and staff eat the lunch that they had prepared in the morning, Cavren fits right in amongst the laughing and teasing group. She makes sure to tell every soul in the room that she’s been interviewed even though she was involuntarily selected for the task by her peers, but they all see right through her bravado. They know she couldn’t be more pleased to share her story.
Over a lunch of cheesy beef enchiladas and chips with queso, Cavren briefly mentions the courses she’s taking online when she’s not busy at Liberty’s Kitchen. Jorie reminds her of the better access she’ll have to a real college education if she manages to get hired at Starbucks, the number one place on Cavren’s list. Cavern cuts her off quickly, assuring Jorie that she’s well aware. No one is surprised, not by this mom-to-be who seems to have it all figured out.
In all likelihood, Cavren is not as put-together as she makes herself out to be. She entered the program nervous and overwhelmed, suffering through the pains of early pregnancy and morning sickness. Her motivation stems not only from her unborn baby, but also from the makeshift family she’s stumbled upon.
“I feel like here at Liberty’s Kitchen…we become better people through the program and actually graduate—I feel like if we can do that, then there’s no telling what they can do for at-risk children. Because I notice from all the graduates that have been in this program, it keeps you off the streets, keeps you from being in things that you shouldn’t be in,” says Cavren.
Jorie is optimistic about the potential Liberty’s Kitchen has to make a difference, emphasizing the individual milestones students have made as well as the physical expansions and increased program attributes. The success of the program isn’t necessarily tangible. At-risk youth in New Orleans are still fighting an uphill battle, but the outlook folks at Liberty’s Kitchen share is overwhelmingly positive.
“I think the biggest thing for us is all of the graduates of Liberty’s Kitchen, and even the students who don’t necessarily graduate—that’s where the proof is. Meeting people like Cavren and getting to know them and how wonderful they all are is truly an honor for me because everyone here has so much to give and so much value,” Jorie says.
Rebecca Krause is a sophomore at Tulane University studying History and Gender Studies.