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The Food Group

The sign taped to the back of the display case reads "fo-cosh-uh," and Terry Williams glances nervously at it as the next customer walks up. She smiles when he points to a sandwich that's been made with focaccia and says, slowly and carefully, "So you like that fo-cosh-uh, huh?" He nods and smiles back, and she hands over the sandwich.

Her part of the transaction complete, Williams wipes the top of the case a few times, tidily rearranges the rest of the sandwiches, and waits for the next opportunity to practice her pronunciation.

Until Williams entered Work Options for Women (WOW), which operates out of the employee cafeteria at the Colorado Department of Human Services, she was lucky to be eating a sandwich herself, let alone one made with some fancy Italian bread. One of the more than 3,000 people in the Denver area who are dealing with the repercussions of the 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act -- which stipulates that people on welfare need to be involved in an employment-related activity within two years of going on welfare or face being cut off -- Williams is trying to learn skills that will make her employable by a restaurant industry that's currently in desperate need of trained workers.

The means to this end for Williams is WOW, a nonprofit started two years ago in Denver by Toni Schmid, who in 1986 had founded the Gathering Place, a day shelter for low-income women. When welfare reform kicked in three years ago, Schmid immediately recognized the need to give women practical, hands-on experience in addition to the services already being offered by the state's welfare system. So two years ago she approached the Archdiocese of Denver with the idea of using their in-house cafeteria as a training ground for women, a concept that would also provide meals and reliable service for the dozens of people who worked in the Archdiocese building.

Schmid was joined by several culinary professionals, including Jane Berryman, a former chef at Café Giovanni, Cliff Young's and Al Fresco who is now the executive chef for the WOW program; sous chef Don Savage; and former Cucina Leone pastry chef Wendy Vlach.

Berryman, who between working for area restaurants and WOW spent a year as the executive chef for a program that taught cooking skills to gang members in the halfway house Youth Track, says she was attracted to WOW because of its focus on women. "Every day, I am amazed that these women keep going, and I wanted to be a part of making it easier for them," she says.

The value of having a group of such caliber training the women is not lost on Schmid, who points out that many people working in the restaurant business have no experience at all. "The industry needs people right now so badly that they'll take just about anyone off the street," she says. "We have women who have been trained by top people in the field and who have further been given other skills that make them very employable."

As the program gained in popularity -- women are referred to it by their welfare caseworkers, who have six employment tracks that they can send people through, including retail, construction and finance -- it outgrew the Archdiocese. And when the Department of Human Services, which houses those caseworkers and other welfare-related services, moved to its new building at 12th Avenue and Federal Boulevard a little over a year ago, Schmid approached the City of Denver with the idea that WOW could run the 250-seat in-house cafeteria for the 1,200 employees who would work there, as well as a small, deli-type cafe that last week was opened to the public.

"I really didn't know if they would go for it," says Schmid. "The city really took a chance on us. They could have gone with a known vendor, but they gave it to us."

While the eateries earn some money through the sale of food, the majority of their operating budget is supplied by foundations and private donations. The cafeteria serves from 250 to 300 meals a day, and the women in the program, which normally lasts just sixteen weeks, work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"Part of what makes them so employable is that to graduate from the program, they have to display all of the things that make it clear they'll be able to hold down a job," says Berryman. "And if they don't display that at the end of the sixteen weeks, then they have to stay on."

All the while, they're learning every aspect of the business -- from prep, sautéeing and dishwashing to customer service, sanitary food- handling and baking -- in a realistic environment while simultaneously taking life-skills classes. Through their caseworkers, they also receive assistance with daycare and transportation.

"Most of the people working at the cafeteria are regular employees, which total sixteen in all, including the caseworkers," says Schmid. "There are six women in the program right now, and they vary in their skill levels. Many of them are coming right from being homeless or on welfare for years, and a lot of them have children."

Bettie Ann Lemay knows that scenario all too well. One of the seventeen women who have graduated from the WOW program since it started, Lemay, who is 43, went on to work for Perkins as a bakery manager for two years. A few months ago she came back to work as a regular employee in the DHS cafeteria, overseeing all of the baking and desserts. "I have five kids, and their father left when I was about 25," she explains. "I was on welfare after that for fifteen years, although all that time, I was trying to work jobs. I could never last at them for more than a few months, but I didn't know why. I always felt there was something wrong with me, 'cause I'd start taking classes at beauty school or business school, and I'd just drop out after a couple of weeks."

It turned out that she has attention deficit disorder, the symptoms of which Schmid noticed soon after Lemay started the program. Schmid referred her to a mental-health assessor, who diagnosed the disorder and put her in touch with a psychiatrist who put Lemay on medication. "It's like I'm me now," says Lemay. "And I come into work and stick with it like anybody else, and it's just amazing to me."

Lemay was also one of the first women to prove that the restaurant industry would hire someone from the program, a concern that has since been laid to rest as every one of the graduates has gone on to find decent-paying jobs.

"Some of them have gone out there and are earning $11.25 an hour," Berryman says. "They think they won the lottery." And, she adds, it's not just restaurants that have a need. "This program makes the women eligible to work as caterers, at schools, hospitals, nursing homes -- you name it. And they can also work at places like Chipotle. We try to really individualize what they learn, tailor it to what they're interested in. Not everyone can handle the hectic craziness of working the grill in a place that does a lot of business."

"This is so real," says Pamela Johnson, a 31-year-old who entered the program to avoid going on welfare when she had a baby last year. "When my boy's father made it clear he wasn't going to be in the picture, I was terrified that I'd be living on the streets. But now I'm actually thinking about going to culinary school, and this has made that possible."

Johnson says the culinary basics she's learned from WOW have given her skills that she can use outside of the workplace, too. "Think of how much better my son's eating these days," she says. "I didn't realize you could do so many different things with eggs."

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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