A New Orleans cafe serves training, knowledge with its food

Cafe Reconcile, located in one of New Orleans' roughest neighborhoods, provides training and instruction to its students while serving local, inexpensive food.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The small, bustling Cafe Reconcile serves up some of the finest local food at some of the lowest prices in Central City, one of New Orleans’ roughest neighborhoods. It also serves up hope for at-risk young people committed to escaping the violence and drugs of its streets.

David Giardina runs the day-to-day operations of the Christian-affiliated nonprofit facility, which trains 16-to-22-year-olds for jobs in restaurants and hotels throughout the New Orleans area. He says the students face challenges including extreme poverty, drug abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, and run-ins with the law.

At a recent round-table discussion, several trainees told New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu that in their neighborhood it is easier to obtain drugs and guns than textbooks.

Mr. Giardina says the students at Cafe Reconcile receive classroom and on-the-job training over a nine-week period. They learn food preparation and how to wait tables as well as how to interview for a job and balance accounts.

The brainchild of the late Father Harry Tompson, the president and principal of Jesuit High School in New Orleans, the program is currently being run by like-minded activists, notably executive director Sister Mary Lou Specha and cofounder Craig Cuccia.

The long-term plan is to add new programs and quadruple the size of the facility. In particular, Cafe Reconcile would like to double its student enrollment from 75 to 150 a year and increase the restaurant’s seating capacity from 80 to 120.

In addition to vocational skills, the facility would like to add a family learning center that would offer classes in parenting, literacy, and computer skills; build a new banquet hall; establish a business center to provide office space and organizational assistance to local entrepreneurs; and create an “institution for social innovation” that will share the program’s model with other cities across the country.

“Think you know New Orleans?” the local news and entertainment publication Gambit Weekly asked in a recent review. “Think again. No matter how long you’ve lived here ... if you haven’t sat and listened to the young trainees at Cafe Reconcile tell their stories, you don’t really know this city.”

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