Last month, we introduced you to Project Launch, the culinary and hospitality workforce-training program offered by the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation’s onsite catering and events partner Kitchens for Good. Project Launch is a 13-week hands-on training program for adults who have experienced barriers to employment, including incarceration, domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness, and aging out of the foster care system.
This month, meet two of the program’s inspiring students. Learn how they discovered their passion for cooking, how Project Launch is changing their lives, and what they hope to accomplish after they complete their training.
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Ja’mount Bradley, 24, grew up in the Skyline neighborhood of Southeastern San Diego and still has close ties to the area through his grandmother. He was introduced to Project Launch by a case manager at Just in Time, a nonprofit dedicated to helping youth transitioning out of the foster care system achieve self-sufficiency and well-being.
Ja’mount has always been interested in food and cooking, which came naturally to him growing up. However, he struggled to find a job due to his criminal record. It was during his time in prison that he honed his interest in cooking into a passion and potential career path. Toward the beginning of his sentence, he hated the food served in prison and rarely ate. His cellmate then showed him how to make better tasting meals using basic ingredients that could be bought at the prison commissary, such as chips and noodles. Ja’mount’s cooking quickly caught on with the other inmates, and they praised his creative concoctions that included tamales made from Doritos corn chips and cakes made out of practically every sweet available for purchase.
Upon his release, he landed an internship at Cici’s Pizza. Within the first month, he was promoted from prep cook to lead cook, which boosted his confidence and desire to continue his culinary training. When his case manager at Just in Time asked if he would be interested in Project Launch, he jumped at the opportunity.
Today his dream is to open a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Spreads, inspired by his creative cooking in prison. In addition to serving up delicious tasting “spreads,” his restaurant would only hire former felons. Having struggled himself to find a good job with a criminal record, Ja’mount hopes his restaurant can be a place that serves great food and one where the formerly incarcerated can find gainful employment. Until he can open his dream restaurant, Ja’mount is putting the skills he learned at Project Launch into practice at Bracero Cocina de Raíz. He was recently hired by the Little Italy restaurant which was rated one of the to 25 restaurants in America by the 2016 James Beard Awards.
Oliva Marquez, 52, has been waiting for something like Project Launch her whole life. She used to play “cooking” when she was growing up but says now “it’s real.” Project Launch is also putting her on the path to a new career in San Diego’s booming culinary and hospitality industry. She was connected to the program through her case manager at the YMCA, a nonprofit that offers transitional housing for homeless women.
Oliva has struggled to find a job due to her lack of experience. She spent 19 years raising her daughter full-time, which left her unprepared to enter the workforce once her daughter was grown and had moved out. Project Launch has boosted Oliva’s confidence and expanded her cooking repertoire to include new delicious meals, such as rosemary chicken and vegetarian entrees. Additionally, the soft skills training included in the program has better prepared her to compete for in-demand jobs. Her mock interviews with Project Launch’s career coach, Katrina Meredith, have made her more relaxed and secure about what used to be a nerve-racking experience.
Like Ja’mount, Oliva’s dream is to one day use the training she received from Project Launch to open a restaurant. She is thinking Mexican cuisine but is open to serving different types of dishes inspired by the delicious and nutritious meals she learned how to make during the program.
While her dream restaurant is a goal for the future, today she prepares the meals she learned at Project Launch for her family and is receiving rave reviews.
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After completion of Project Launch, Ja’mount, Olivia, and the rest of the students will receive an industry certificate as well as job-placement assistance from Kitchens for Good for up to one year.
The first session of Project Launch will culminate with a graduation ceremony in April. The next session, with a new set of inspiring students, will begin on April 20.
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Written by Liz Farris, Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation
posted March 29, 2016