Teresa Goines won’t take no for an answer. And because of that determination she’s helped change the lives of more than 300 at-risk youths in the Bayview-Hunters Point area of San Francisco, an impoverished neighborhood with few opportunities for young people.
Ms. Goines founded and today manages the Old Skool Cafe, where young people between the ages of 16 and 22 work in every position – from dishwasher to busser to cook to host and server. In these jobs they also find a home, a community, and real hope for the future, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
When Goines began her first job out of college, she worked in the California juvenile detention system, where she encountered young people whose difficult lives and prospects shook her.
“My world was rocked when I heard their stories,” she says. “I didn’t know about the many 14- and 15-year-olds who believe that the only future for them is either prison or being dead before 18.”
During 2-1/2 years on the job, she became increasingly motivated to help. She tried to encourage the youths and talk with them about possibilities.
Their response? “That’s your reality, not mine,” they told her.
With parents often in prison, these young people didn’t feel loved; many joined gangs to feel protected and part of something. But despite their tough exteriors, Goines realized that these were just kids wanting to belong and to feel they mattered to someone.
So she held job fairs, where firefighters and other professionals would come to talk with the youths. She took them to the local community college to inspire them to dream of new possibilities.
It worked. The teens began to look forward to getting out and starting a new life.
But, as Goines explains, after youths in the juvenile detention system leave, they return to their old environment. Often they become responsible for their younger siblings, all the while living in poverty. Added to all this, they are in constant danger from gangs and street crime.
Goines saw these newly inspired and hopeful young people returning to environments where they had no role models, no mentors. “Yet we tell them to care for themselves,” she says. “They can’t win.”
Over and over she witnessed them coming back – picked up and jailed within a week – their hopes completely gone.
Some didn’t survive after they went back onto the streets. “I went to too many funerals,” she says. “We set them up to fail.”
Goines couldn’t walk away. I have to do something about this, she told herself. These were not “her” kids, or even the community’s: “These are our nation’s children,” she says. “And they’re being thrown away.”
Seeking an answer, she turned to her religious faith and prayed, asking, “Please give me a solution for the kids of my country.”
She examined why her strategies so far had failed and began to realize she needed to not only provide a job, but create a family atmosphere. She reasoned, What if a job was designed to be a mentor, to provide skills and a safe environment, a place to learn to deal with conflict? The right job would help them learn to develop successful relationships – not just on the job, but in life. It would be a place where they could have a voice.
Although these youths needed to support themselves, and sometimes their families, Goines didn’t want to start a charity project. A handout doesn’t help build long-term success, she says. Nor does dependency on others. The kids would have to work.
These dreams that began 11 years ago eventually became Old Skool Cafe. Seventy-five percent of the young staff members have been in jail at some point, and all of them come from at-risk backgrounds, which means they may have dropped out of school, may have suffered abuse, may be living in foster care, or may have come from homes with drug-addicted parents or have parents who are in jail.
When Goines began, people warned her that 9 out of every 10 new restaurants fail. But she wouldn’t give up. She began in 2006 by hosting events in her own home.
Guru Khalsa, a San-Francisco-based international photographer and documentary filmmaker, tells of meeting Goines at a fundraiser in 2009: “I saw all these energetic youths dressed in red, working as amazing staff. When I found out they represented Old Skool Cafe, I was inspired and asked how I could help.”
Since then, Mr. Khalsa has taken photographs and recruited videographers and designers to help raise awareness of the cafe.
“If you want to see the impact that Teresa and the [Old Skool Cafe] has on youths,” Khalsa says, “all you have to do is come in for dinner. I’ve seen kids go from being uncommunicative and defiant to becoming outgoing and caring young adults engaged in their community.”
Old Skool Cafe provides a paycheck for the youths as well as a place for them to do their homework, helping them finish high school and even go on to college.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Jeremiah Rushing faced his first jail time as an adult.
“I was just lost, trying to figure out who I was. I always yearned for a community,” he says. He had a big fine to pay, and his parole officer recommended that he apply to Old Skool Cafe.
Goines gave Mr. Rushing a chance to work. “They were training me, and I finished high school with a diploma,” he says proudly. “I got the help with homework, and they gave me mental support. They talked me through all my struggles.” Today, he continues to work at Old Skool Cafe and has just finished his first year of college.
“I want to be a preacher or teacher or an activist – I want to do so much,” Rushing says. “Old Skool has been a safe haven, a home where I could learn about people and myself.”
Old Skool Cafe is now a full-service restaurant and has been in its present location for three years. Goines concedes that the Bayview address does scare some diners away.
However, the loving attention to the décor of the restaurant, along with the highly rated, international “comfort food” Old Skool serves, reflects the care Goines invests in every detail.
“I spent six years ‘proving it,’ ” she says of the cafe. That meant working tirelessly and using her own money to back the project. She found chefs and other adult help – everything she needed – through volunteers.
Another supporter, Susan Brown, director of special projects at The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Institute on Politics & Public Service in San Francisco, also owns a small high-end tour company in the city. About five years ago, a friend invited Ms. Brown to an Old Skool Cafe dinner in Goines’s home. Brown describes that evening as “fantastic.”
Later, when she was hired to host a client-appreciation dinner for about 40 people, she called on Old Skool to cater the event.
“I’d recommend them a million times over!” Brown says.
“Teresa is a force of nature and the most inspiring person I know,” Khalsa says. “She faces obstacle after obstacle and always finds a way ... to help the youths, and always with a positive attitude.”
Although Old Skool Cafe now receives some funding from foundations and individual donors, it still struggles to stay open three nights a week. Goines says simply, “We need more customers and more donations.”
Looking back on her 11-year journey, Goines says that her religious faith has sustained her. “I felt God gave me this vision, and I couldn’t give up until I saw it come true,” she says.
• Learn more at www.oldskoolcafe.org.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help youths worldwide:
• Yspaniola Incorporated creates access to quality education in Batey Libertad and other marginalized communities in the Dominican Republic. Take action: Educate young Dominican and Haitian leaders of tomorrow.
• Nepal Orphans Home helps children in Nepal who are orphaned or abandoned by their parents. Take action: Fund education in sustainable livelihoods through vocational training.
• Achungo Community Center was started by a Kenyan to care for village orphans. Take action: Donate toward secondary school scholarships for destitute Kenyan children.