A lush garden, quaint patio and a group of eager high school students are some of the first things you notice at MAKE Cafe.
The North Park restaurant is part of MAKE Projects, a nonprofit organization whose acronym stands for Merging Agriculture, Kitchens, and Employment.
“We have an amazing urban farm. It's a working farm. We have a restaurant that has Thursday and Saturday dinner service and brunch service. And then we’re also a private events catering company,” said MAKE Projects founder and executive director Anchi Mei.
She said the main purpose of the organization is to offer paid job training programs for refugee and immigrant girls and women.
“We have the youth enroll in a 6 to 8 week paid work experience; they're working about 10 hours a week on the farm, in the restaurant and they have an hour a week of job readiness training. The adults are three months long and they're a bit more intensive, 12 to 15 hours a week,” Mei said.
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A few of the recent MAKE Projects youth participants include Nadein Osman and Hanan Idris. They both attend Crawford High School in City Heights and were friends before joining the program.
“There’s four positions,” Idris said. “We switch out, so there’s hostess, server, beverage and the person that does the farm tours.”
Osman said the program gives them a low-stress opportunity to improve their public speaking, writing and interview abilities.
“We learned how to apply to jobs, we learned making a resume,” the high school sophomore said. “And those helped me a lot. Now when I sign up to jobs I know what to do exactly and I have my resume ready, which helps the jobs I’m looking for be interested in me.”
Senior Farm Trainer Robbie Wilcox teaches students like Osman and Idris about those job skills, as well as providing food and gardening knowledge.
He said they have trainees lead farm tours to build their confidence.
“So if you learn not necessarily how to farm, but nutrient cycling or organic pest management or even what these different varieties are, how to cook with them, how to talk about them, you can work that public speaking, professional practice muscle without having to mine the well all the time,” Wilcox said.
Another way that MAKE Projects trains youth and adult participants is through the hands-on jobs of the restaurant business. Jeanette Sandoval supervises the café.
“So for a lot of adult trainees language barriers are really hard for them,” Sandoval said. “So they usually go to the back of house because it's easier to communicate through the kitchen and food than it is to communicate only through verbal language.”
The organization's executive director said MAKE Projects is currently 15% self-sustaining from their business income, but aims to be at 80% in the next 5 years.
That growth would come from the multiple channels that fund their mission, including a vegetable box CSA subscription, private events and their growing café, which Mei said was an accidental byproduct of the pandemic.
“Originally it was catering and that was so sad to see all that business go away, but when we reinvented with a restaurant model,” she said. “That’s become so much more impactful for our participants. Now they’re learning all those soft skills and social skills that are directly translating to better employment.”
High school junior Idris said the program is a place of acceptance where trainees learn job and life skills from staff who are patient and kind.
“MAKE Projects, it has very good co-workers and everyone around it is really, really sweet,” she said. “They’re just always there. It's a really good environment, especially for your mental health.”
For now, Idris is focused on applying to universities this upcoming fall. Her goal is to eventually open a non-profit organization that builds on the lessons she learned from MAKE Projects.
Meanwhile, Osman is excited to begin her new job making pizzas at Little Caesars, a role that she had help applying for through the youth training program.