By Katherine Long, Editor

SYRACUSE — In the industrial kitchen at the offices of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, students in the Culinary Arts for Self-Sufficiency (CASS) program prep and chop, mix and measure, boil and bake. Through the program, students not only learn how to turn raw ingredients into delicious dishes, they also learn how to turn their new skills into employment after graduation.

The CASS program began several years ago, serving refugees who had recently arrived in Syracuse. This year, the program expanded to also serve native-born individuals living in generational poverty, according to Michael Melara, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County (CCOC).

The aim of the program as well as Project Joseph, CCOC’s property maintenance operation that employs refugees and those who are homeless or housing-vulnerable, is to create a platform for individuals whose prospects for employment are low to “have a chance to participate in a real, meaningful way in work. We think work continues to be the antidote to a lot of the social issues that people confront and face,” Melara said.

Cody Maggi, Social Venture Specialist for CCOC, works closely with students in the new CASS program. They have ranged in age from 18 to 60, she said, and have come from a variety of backgrounds, including incarceration, extreme poverty, substance abuse, teen parents, single parents, foster young adults, and those in shelters.

Students participate in the program for five weeks. Monday through Thursday afternoons are spent in the kitchen with an instructor, learning critical skills such as reading recipes, understanding weights and measurements, mastering knife skills, cooking processes, and handling and storing food safely. Students also staff the in-house deli, gaining preparation and customer service skills. And at the end of the course, students can earn ServSafe Certification, a food safety certification from the National Restaurant Association.

On Friday afternoons, the classes have a different focus. CASS’s aim is to get people to work, however “just putting somebody to work, getting them a job, doesn’t really make a difference if they don’t know how to be an employee,” said Christopher Patch, Social Venture Program Manager for CCOC (and former professional chef). The program now includes “soft skills” instruction, positioning graduates to be able to “get a job in a kitchen, but they could also get a job anywhere else because they know what the responsibilities are,” he said.

Maggi teaches “an array of soft skills, for example, communication, attitude, occupational culture, conflict resolution, dependability, teamwork,” she said. The topics are drawn from feedback from employers on what they’re looking for in employees, she explained, and she observes the kitchen classes to see if the students are putting the soft skills into practice.

Maggi also helps prepare students for job seeking after graduation. She teaches them to build resumes and find references, and helps them create “job maps” that identify employment opportunities that fit their skills and interests. She and the students also practice mock interviews. “We spend a lot of time on interviewing because you need confidence to sit in front of an employer,” Maggi said.

During and after the program, Maggi helps to connect students with any services they may need. “If there are barriers they hit — childcare, transportation, anything — we work to address them immediately to keep them in the program,” she said. Maggi also follows up with students for three months following graduation.

To date, 24 individuals have graduated from the new CASS program, and 17 have gained employment, according to Maggi.

One recent graduate is a 30-year-old man from Syracuse. After the culinary program was recommended to him, “I gave it a try and I thought it was amazing,” he said. “All the people there are wonderful. They helped me out a lot.” While previously working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, he always wanted to cook, he noted, and he enjoyed learning how to chop like chefs. He said he thought the mock interviews with Maggi were the most important part of the soft skills classes. He’s currently working for Project Joseph, doing the type of work he’s done most of his life, he said. Looking to the future, he’d like to be an entrepreneur. “This is just a stepping stone,” he said.

CCOC is also looking to the future and continuing to enhance the CASS program. A catering operation has been started through the program, Maggi said, offering catering to internal and external clients. A mentorship program is also in the works, Maggi added, which will connect students during and after the program with members of the community who work in the restaurant industry.

Patch sums up the idea behind CASS and Project Joseph simply: “It’s that by giving somebody work, you’re giving them dignity. There really is dignity in work.”

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