Jordan Butler on purpose of Refill Café

Refill Café is a developing organization, run by Jeff Good, that will open late this year. It will provide young adults with the tools to take their first steps in the professional world and with training in an entry-level job. Project Manager Jordan Butler is a 2004 Murrah High School graduate. She attended Sewanee and now has two master’s degrees in public service and public health. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips spoke with Butler about what Refill Café will have to offer young Jacksonians as they take their first steps into the professional and adult world.


How did the idea of Refill Café get started?

“This used to be Koinonia Coffee House, and it was open from 2008 to 2016. Lee and Larry Harper bought it and renovated it … When they sold it, Jeff (Good) bought it from the Harpers a couple months right after they closed and bought it as is… If I remember correctly, they received the planning grant on March 15 (2017).”


Isn’t it based off a similar establishment in New Orleans?

“Café Reconcile has been there in New Orleans for 17 years. They are written into our grant as an official partner. Kellogg is interested in funding projects that aren’t just startups but are replicating successful models. Of course, we’re not New Orleans, so we won’t replicate Café Reconcile, because it won’t make sense for our city. But there are components to this that we don’t have to reinvent…”


What will Refill Café offer?

“The program is a place that essentially provides opportunities, space and support… What we realize is that not everyone would enjoy working in a kitchen, and it’s not focused on just restaurant work. The social skills, the interpersonal skills, those life skills are applicable to all jobs and workplaces. The idea is to provide a place where there is space and support and feedback to navigate those skills. It’s very trainee-driven. This is not a charity case of helping people with broken lives… The current class (at Café Reconcile in New Orleans), all of them are in the class for various reasons. They all have different barriers that are preventing them from either getting or keeping employment.”


What are some examples of barriers trainees are experiencing?

“First of all, a lot of them have never had a job. So, getting that initial job can be really tricky. That’s a big piece, ‘Where do I start?’ Some of them have court issues, and social workers are helping them with that through Café Reconcile. And a lot of them simply graduated from high school… A handful of them just said to me, ‘I was bored,’ in the sense that, ‘I don’t have anything else to do. I don’t necessarily want to go to college.’ That’s not the next step for that person at that time. A lot of them are in transitional homes, so some are in group homes, some are in the process of moving homes, some are in overcrowded homes. Two of them are currently pregnant, not to say that’s a barrier to their employment, but I think that’s something they’re trying to manage and think forward about… There are a number of things.”


Is there a timeline on when Refill Café will open its doors?

“We’re in the middle of a planning grant right now through Kellogg. The planning grant officially ends in August of this year. We, right now, are planning for the programming and the structure and the services within the workforce training program itself… The idea is that we’re going to apply for an implementation grant through Kellogg. We have to get some matching funds and things like that for those purposes. Then, what we would do is open a restaurant, hire a full staff, then we would hire on our programming staff, which is all the staff that does the wrap-around services available to the program. Then, we’d have our first trainees by December of this year or January 2019. That’s all very rough. We might be able to do that a whole lot quicker… But, we’re saying fall or winter of 2018, we’ll be open.”


How does the workforce training program work?

“Part of our grant provides travel money, so I can actually go down to New Orleans, and I’ve been traveling to their most recent training class. The way Café Reconcile works, they have six classes, if you will. They call them cohorts. They’re eight weeks long every year. Young adults come through the program for eight weeks at a time. That’s what I’ve been shadowing. I watched the first two weeks of their experience in the program, and I’ll be back for the last four weeks… It’s the shortest work training program in the city of New Orleans, and it has the least amount of requirements to get in, and it’s designed that way, because they want people to come in and get out so they can get to paychecks, get that to that entry-level job.”


What do trainees learn?

“When you sign up, you commit to an eight-week program… You get paid — that’s a big piece of it. It’s a paid training program that increases over the eight weeks. It’s everything from the practice of showing up on time to resume-building classes to access to social workers and mental health services, access to SNAP benefits. They do mock interviews and field trips. On top of that, you also get experience in the front of the house and shadow waiters. They also spend two weeks in the back of the house learning some entry skills.”


And the program doesn’t provide housing?

“It doesn’t provide housing, it doesn’t provide any childcare either. That’s something you have to have arranged before you get here. They do provide bus passes. Other than that, they don’t provide any other transportation to and from the program.”


Do program graduates have to give back to Café Reconcile, and will they need to give back to Refill Café, once they’ve completed an eight-week course?

“They do keep in touch as best as they can with graduates. Their services, especially their mental health services, are ongoing. Also, their employment services are ongoing, so they can always come back and use their computers to apply, talk with their education coordinator. They do also have a three-week internship opportunity at the end, if you graduate the eight-week program, which just means you complete it. The three-week internship is limited pay, but it’s a way to get an in-depth feel for a job. They do have an alumni council, which I think they just developed in the last two years, and they have their own alumni coordinator as a full-time position.”


How would one not be able to complete an eight-week program?

“You can get asked to leave the program. There are stipulations that would essentially get you kicked out, but the idea is that you’re just not ready to commit, and you can come back for the next class… They do come, every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (school hours), and they hone in that it is not school, that it is work, because they pay them to be there, it is a choice. There is a culture around, ‘We expect you to be an adult. We’re going to treat you like an adult…’ ”


What if someone who’s in their 30s or is not a young adult signs up for a program?

“Generally speaking, adults in their 30s, if they’re coming to this program, have far more barriers and issues that need to be dealt with than a young adult typically does… They wouldn’t necessarily be turned away, but (we would be) really providing that short-term, ‘How do you get around a kitchen?’ Restaurants don’t want someone who necessarily has the best knife skills. They want someone who’s ready to learn, who shows up on time, who’s respectful. What they need are not culinary masters. It’s a very reasonable, entry-level job.”


Have there been any criticisms to how the program works?

“People have come back to say, ‘If you’re just helping people get minimum wage jobs, are you really helping in career development?’ The answer I would have to that, this is that one first step that you need to have some structure and support, some feedback, some experience in messing up, getting better. But it’s short. You’re not going to master anything in the program. The mindset, too, is that there’s a lot of talk and narrative around helping at-risk youth in our community, and that’s very much an out-of-date term and, I think, an inappropriate term. That’s because, it assumes that we’re not all at risk in some form or fashion. The term now is opportunity youth.”


What does that term mean?

“Sixteen to 24, developmentally is such an important time. When we think about career development, that never ends… This is a time when, if you’ve maybe not had success, support or example, it’s an opportunity — again, this is what I see in Reconcile and dream and envision for Refill Café — it’s a place where, essentially, you can come and get some of that interpersonal development and support that doesn’t exist when you age out of home or school, and whether it really exists there either is debatable in many contexts…”


How much are you asking for in your next grant?

“I don’t know. Part of what is going to happen in these next four weeks, I’m setting up one-on-ones with a series of protocols that I’ve developed for their executive director, social workers, all the different positions. One of the things we have to figure out is how to balance running the restaurant, which is not what sustains them financially. Once we have an idea of our budget, we can figure out how much we’re going to ask for and how much we’re going to get in matching funds. That’s one of the big questions right now, and that will depend on our size… The function of the planning grant is to say, ‘We’ve done all our homework, this is what it’s going to look like, now give us money to do this. Here are the positions and how much we assume we’ll pay them.’ This will be rough, but that’s kind of the whole point of these 18 months, or at least my year, is to do all of that.”


Is there a way for people to get involved or volunteer?

“We have a Facebook page, and we also have a Web site, so you can say updated there. We are having an event on March 3 at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. This is a benefit concert featuring the Men’s Chorus and the Murrah Choir at 7:30 p.m. What we’re using it as is an introduction to the Café, so I’m putting together a presentation… Friday Forum is still held here every Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., which has been run for eight years. You can come and see the space, see a speaker, have some coffee. It’s just a free event. It’s just a speaker locally from Jackson…”


What’s the best number to call for more information?

“They can call me, which is 501-515-3119. There’s also a place where you can send an email on our Web site, and those will all come to me.”


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