Mike La Croix likes to stay busy and likes things to be done right. When he stays busy, and when he feels like a job is well done, he also feels productive. And feeling productive makes him feel good about himself.
That’s why he’s an ideal candidate for Bean’s Cafe’s newly formed Workforce Development Pilot Project, which teaches the skills necessary for gainful employment. During the busy lunchtime rush, La Croix is a whirl of activity in the kitchen.
He washes massive pots and pans, mixes dough for homemade pizza and slices pepperoni logs on an industrial-size meat slicer. He will slow down to talk if you ask him, but the minute the questions stop, he is back at work, intent on squeezing productivity out of every second of his day.
“I come in at 6 a.m. and stay until late in the night,” said La Croix, who has worked on and off in the commercial fishing industry and is no stranger to physical labor. “It keeps me busy and keeps me from being out there.”
He nods his head in the direction to “out there,” an overflowing dining room of homeless men and women coming inside from a cold February snowstorm. La Croix is talking about being away from the crowds; staying in, so he’s not out in the cold; and perhaps most important, avoiding the perils of drinking, drugs and fighting that often accompany homelessness.
The Workforce Development Pilot Project helps qualified participants focus on a future, said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe. It is a program made possible by a $50,000 contribution from Providence Health & Services Alaska, as part of its annual Community Benefit giving.
Both Providence and Bean’s Cafe have similar missions – serving the poor and vulnerable – and a program that lifts people up in their time of need is an investment toward ending homelessness and hunger.
“What we’re really trying to do is create a solution,” Sauder said. “We’ve taken our regular volunteer jobs like cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors and preparing foods and turned them into on-the-job training. You can get your Food Handler’s Card, which makes you employable.”
The program also comes with required workplace education, Sauder said, including coursework in expectations of employers, the importance of showing up on time, showing up sober and building a resume. A screening process determines the most eligible participants in an effort to achieve long-term success, she added.
“We’ve had 17 clients earn their Food Handler’s Card since the program started,” Sauder said.
“We’re really focused on giving people skills that will allow them to get jobs and find homes.”
Aaron Dollison is one of two Bean’s Cafe kitchen supervisors who oversee the students. He said the program has been a success thus far because he has participants who see beyond the immediate gratification of a free meal. They are looking toward a future that does not include homelessness.
Students follow a protocol of the National Restaurant Association called ServSafe, which makes them uniquely qualified to work in the industry. Often, this experience alone can give them a leg up on the competition.
“It’s working really well,” Dollison said. “Some of these guys, like Mike, can almost run a kitchen on their own.”
Seasonal fisherman James Brown said his job as a food-supply stocker has helped him stay focused and gain experience for future work. He is thankful that Bean’s Cafe, with the help of Providence, has invested in those experiencing tight times.
“I’m down between seasons and I like doing this,” Brown said. “We go to the Food Bank, pick up the food, weigh it in, and stock the shelves. I have work to do and I just keep coming back because I think working saves you.”