ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Designer Michael Frechet, Selvin Chambers, executive director of Root, Jennifer Eddy, founder of Root and Sam Hunt, master chef, look at plans for the new kitchen at 35 Congress St. in Salem.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
SALEM — Root is a new Salem-based social enterprise focused on changing the narrative for at-risk youth by teaching them work and life skills through food service training.
Selvin Chambers, executive director of Root, said the nonprofit, based at Shetland Park, is focused on providing workforce employment opportunities for 16- to 24-year-old at-risk youth on the North Shore. He said the focus is to help them use food as a vehicle to train them to be employable.
The program, which is expected to begin in April, 2017, lasts about 16 weeks, where participants will learn hard and soft skills ranging from discipline to time management, along with cooking basics.
Chambers said participants will learn how to serve food in a cafe setting and work in the prep kitchen. Root’s event space will be a training ground where youth will work with clients who rent out the space from Root and use its catering service.
Root participants will also take part in a four-week internship with a local restaurant.
“In fact, it’s very intentional that they learn all aspects of the program,” Chambers said. “Therefore, as they’re going through the program, they’ll get a clear understanding of what the restaurant business is. Because when you look at it on TV, they glorify it. It looks like it’s a great place to be and reality is, we don’t want to scare them away. We want them to know it’s rigorous work, but there are different avenues…So, we want to make sure they have a well-rounded experience so when they do get into the workforce, they have an understanding of this is real work.”
Chambers said at-risk youth population statistics show that if young people are not employed, they drink, get in trouble and some even go to jail. He said the program is intended to train them to be employed, but also to be good citizens.
“Well, when you look at the stats for the population, aged 16 to 24, that at-risk population, those are the ones that struggle the most with really employability skills,” Chambers said. “And for us, it’s really working with that population to really position them for success.”
Essex County is home to more than 9,000 disconnected youth, or those between 16 to 24 years old who are not in school or working, according to statistics gathered by Root. Root is targeting youth who are currently enrolled in high school or a HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) program in Essex County.
The pilot program is expected to primarily attract students from Salem and Lynn, according to information from Root. The goal is to have four cohorts a year, with about 15 people in each one, to allow for more individualized attention. More than half of the students are expected to be Latinos. Chambers expects 400 applicants the first year.
Applicants are required to have a caring adult who signs on to be their mentor. Students will get a stipend. But if someone is homeless or has some drug and alcohol issues, Root is probably not the place for them, he added.
Rather than turn those away that don’t qualify with housing or addiction issues, Chambers said they would be directed to other services.
Chambers has been executive director for eight weeks and he said the organization is just getting off the ground. The program will cost about $1.4 million, which will mostly be funded through donations and grants, he said. Root also plans to use its food service businesses to raise some of the money needed to run the organization.
Root was founded by Jennifer Eddy of Ipswich, following a visit to an orphanage during an overseas trip.
“At the orphanage, they were realizing that some of the young people in the orphanage when they were kind of aging out, they didn’t want to just push them out to the streets,” Chambers said, “So, she came back here and said, ‘Oh, I want to try that.’”
There was also inspiration from Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans, according to Elisabeth Massey, a community volunteer for Root.
Chambers said the strategy is to partner with local high schools in the area and churches to recruit youth. He said Root will reach out to local youth serving organizations like The Food Project and Raw Art Works.
In some cases, Root will be a feeder organization and vice versa. If someone’s not a fit for his organization, they might be directed to the Food Project.
Master chef Sam Hunt is a recent Root hire. Hunt owned his own restaurant, but wanted to be able to provide a different opportunity for at-risk youth, said Chambers.
Massey said Root also fills a current need in the restaurant industry for trained staff.
“They are having a hard time finding help and so I think there’s a real opportunity for kids in this area to find jobs, that these jobs actually exist,” she said.
Root’s kick-off event is set for Thursday, Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at its Shetland Park Facility. Chambers and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll are expected to speak. Tickets are $75.
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.