Woman sees nothing but Blue Sky: Nonprofit runs fledgling job training program, A Taste of Success
By Janet Rausa Fuller
November 28, 2007
The youths showed up, without fail, to the North Side rented kitchen at daybreak every Wednesday and Thursday this summer, ready to bake.
They assembled Caprese sandwiches for catering orders and mixed up batches of Cheddar chive scones and peanut butter oatmeal cookies. Then they sold the goodies at the Wicker Park and Printers Row farmers markets. It was rare if they didn’t sell out.
At $7.50 an hour, it was a decent gig — and all the more remarkable, considering the youths were homeless.
“It took a long time and a lot of hair-pulling and screaming and yelling, but I had kids taking, by the end of the summer, two buses and a train and then walking four blocks and being on time for every shift,” said Lisa Thompson.
Thompson is the founder of Blue Sky Inn, a nonprofit that runs the fledgling job training program called A Taste of Success out of Kitchen Chicago, a shared use facility in Ravenswood Manor.
Summer, of course, came to an end — as did the teens’ track record.
On a recent Wednesday, Thompson stood alone in the kitchen, mixing up yet another batch of peanut butter cookie dough.
Erica, a single mom whom Thompson had counted on more than anyone, was an inexplicable no-show on this day.
Derek and Karen — both of whom had worked all summer, both of whom live on the L — hadn’t showed up to work in a week.
“It’s the nature of their lives,” said Thompson, a former sexual assault victim’s advocate with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. “I don’t think it means the program can’t work, or that these specific youths can’t work.”
Last week, Thompson hired two more eager youths, Korvell Ford and Tyiquite Norwood. Both are 18, high school dropouts and residents at Belfort House, a transitional youth home at 3739 S. Indiana. Both were kicked out of their relatives’ homes.
A vocational worker at the shelter told them about the job. They didn’t have to think twice.
“I want to try and stick through it,” said Norwood, an aspiring Navy chef.
“Since I want to go to cooking school, this would be a good thing,” said Ford, who has worked at Krispy Kreme and Burger King. “The more I know, the farther I get.”
Thompson, 34, was drawn to working with at-risk youths after volunteering at a Lakeview shelter five years ago.
“I never thought a white girl from Wheaton was going to have a lot to offer these kids,” she said. “But they want things every other kid wants. They want to be happy. They want to be part of things that are productive.”
Her original concept for Blue Sky Inn — one she still hopes to bring to fruition — was a bed-and-breakfast by the same name operated by homeless youths.
She lacked the capital, so she began an art program in local shelters. She also wanted to offer a job-training program that would be a moneymaking venture for the kids.
“I have always loved scones and I think most of them are garbage, so I said we’re going to make some really good ones,” said Thompson, an avid baker and Food Network fan.
A Taste of Success started in May. Thompson fired several youths along the way; others simply didn’t show up.
At the Wicker Park farmers market, restaurateur Debbie Sharpe tried the pastries. This month, Sharpe started carrying the scones at the Gold Coast location of her gourmet foods shop, The Goddess and Grocer, 25 E. Delaware.
“I like what she does and her scones were delicious,” Sharpe said.
The Taste of Success program has netted nearly $18,000 from the farmers market sales and catering orders. The next step, Thompson said, is to find their own kitchen. That may be the key to the program’s success, she says.
“If I can offer the youth 40 hours a week in one place,” she said, “maybe they’d stay more involved.”