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A New Approach to Community: Workforce Development



By Georgette Farkas

His white chef’s coat was splattered in avocado green with red flecks of tomato and tobacco. Reign Rodriguez, the recently arrived kitchen intern, was also wearing a broad grin reflecting his satisfaction at having helped prepare gallons of guacamole. Reign came to Great Performances by way of the Youth Action Youth Build (YAYB) program. They had prepared him with six weeks of culinary and food safety training, but this was his very first experience in a professional kitchen.

YAYB, based in East Harlem, is dedicated to putting young adults on the path to self-empowerment. Great Performances is making their kitchens a stepping stone along that path. The YAYB program includes job skills training, job placement services, high school equivalency certification and a safe environment where students are positively encouraged to become leaders in their communities. While Reign is choosing to go on to the Navy once he receives his GED, his fellow intern, Jasmine Villalongo, has developed a real taste for culinary life. Just three weeks into her internship, Jasmine found a mentor in Great Performances Pastry Chef Albert Bello. Having a seasoned professional take an interest and dedicate time to providing hands on instruction makes all the difference. Chef Albert’s standards are rigorous, but he also understands that Jasmine is still a student, taking her first steps in this new professional environment. Five out of Jasmine’s eight weeks of internship will focus entirely on pastry. She began learning speed and consistency by adding finishing touches to petits fours. It takes time to perfect coating lemon pops in meringue or cheesecake pops in white chocolate.  Today Jasmine is rolling chocolate kormos logs to be served at Greek American Foundation gala. “The scale of the kitchen here is much bigger than what I expected,” explains Jasmine, who spent her first few weeks honing her knife skills on the vegetable station. “I was cutting fruits and vegetables I had never seen before. This is a whole new area for me.” If all goes well, Jasmine’s internship could lead to full time employment.

While Great Performances has long been steeped in community, today the outreach extends well beyond their tradition of supporting food banks and heathy eating programs. The company has recently begun partnering with a number of workforce development organizations. This two-way street brings together populations in need of training, job readiness and connections and a business ready to devote time and energy to supporting them. Great Performances first steps in this area have been with Youth Acton Youth Build. They are also developing a strong bond with Hot bread Kitchen, an organization that creates economic opportunity for immigrant women and women of color through job skills training, food entrepreneurship programs, and an ecosystem of support in New York City.

Workforce Development Coordinator, Moses McBride explained that YAYB wants to empower young adults to make change right in their own communities and that one of the best ways to accomplish this is through on the job vocational training. He believes internships show young people what a stable career path could look like. “I faced many of the same challenges as the young people in our program,” explains Moses, who knows what a difference it makes to access skills and credentials. “Working with young people, you see a steep learning curve and the ability to adapt to new environments. These may be individuals who are outside the mainstream and feel they don’t fit in. Their new-found skills can fulfill their need to feel validated.” He loves to see them become committed and focused and find a purpose.  According to Moses, a professional environment with standards and expectations is part of the experience and helps interns gage their tenacity and willpower, while building both tangible and intangible skills. The Great Performances kitchen may be just the place to make that happen.