This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Winnipeg coffee shop a training ground for youth

WINNIPEG, Man. — It’s the morning lull at Sam’s Place, the time between the opening rush for coffee and the lunch crowd.

There are about a half-dozen people in the coffee shop, café and used bookstore, owned and operated by Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba.

Sam’s Place is “a business, a nonprofit, a ministry, a social enterprise that seeks to make a difference for youth,” says manager Alison Green­slade. — John Longhurst
Sam’s Place is “a business, a nonprofit, a ministry, a social enterprise that seeks to make a difference for youth,” says manager Alison Green­slade. — John Longhurst

Two women are having a meeting, a student is studying, one or two people are browsing the books, a mother and child are playing in the games area.

At the counter is Rachel Braun, making a coffee for a customer.

The 14-year-old isn’t an employee, though; she’s a volunteer. And Sam’s Place isn’t a usual coffee shop; it’s a social enterprise designed to help youth get ready for employment.

Braun is doing an internship, “learning by doing,” as she puts it.

“I love this place,” she said. “I’m learning lots of valuable skills and building up my resume and references.”

She’s also getting experience as a barista, something the aspiring actor jokes could come in handy in the future.

Braun is one of more than 100 young people who receive workplace training every year at Sam’s Place, opened by MCC Manitoba in 2009.

Located just over the Red River from downtown Winnipeg, its goal is to provide youth from the area with opportunities to get ahead economically.

“Our primary mission is to help youth develop work skills, build a resume and get references,” said manager Alison Greenslade.

Greenslade, who once worked at a Starbucks herself, said the volunteers get a variety of experiences — in the “dish pit” washing dishes, in the kitchen making food and at the front of the house serving customers.

The volunteers come from various life situations. There are newcomers to Canada, indigenous youth, kids from lower-    income families and students from area high schools doing  service hours or practicums.

Most are between 14 and 18 years old.

“It’s a chance for them to learn skills in a softer environment, a place a little less demanding and intense, learn at their own pace, develop their skills and confidence,” she said.

The volunteers usually stay about three months. When they leave, they’ll have references and a resume — and friendships with each other and staff.

For Greenslade, who has a business degree, working at Sam’s Place is a dream job.

“It’s a business, a nonprofit, a ministry, a social enterprise that seeks to make a difference for youth,” she said. “I want to run it as a business, to benefit our mission.”

Measuring success

Ideally, Sam’s Place would be a thriving business, paying all its expenses one cup of coffee, one bowl of soup or a piece of pastry at a time.

But that’s not the case — and Darryl Loewen, executive director of MCC Manitoba, is OK with that. He’s reluctant to share how much the business earns each year, but the goal is for it to be as sustainable as it can.

Financial sustainability isn’t the only bottom line.

“Sam’s Place exists to help local youth become empowered and get an on-ramp into the workforce,” he said. It survives on sales, small grants, some donations and support from MCC.

The payoff, said Loewen, is seeing youth, some who come from very difficult circumstances, get ready for the workforce by developing hard skills —to make food, make drinks, work a till — and also soft skills such as how to work with others, interact with the public and deal with conflict and stress.

Gaining confidence

For Adam Tetreault, 28, that’s exactly the kind of place he needs at this stage of his life.

“I’ve been struggling with depression and anxiety for years,” he said. It kept him from even applying for work. But now he hopes the experience he’s getting at Sam’s Place will help him get a job.

“I like the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s a very encouraging environment.”

Sam’s Place has also been a good way for Arshdeep Kaur to get job experience and learn more about Canada.

The 23-year-old immigrated to Canada from India last summer with plans to attend college in fall. With time before classes started, she decided to volunteer — to learn more about Canada, network and make new friends.

“I had never had a cappuccino before,” she said. “I don’t even drink coffee.”

But now she’s becoming an expert due to her time at the counter making drinks for customers.

Sam’s Place wants to achieve as much business success as possible, but many other goals won’t show up on a traditional bottom line. As Greenslade puts it: “We are not a coffee shop that trains youth. We are a training facility that happens to run a coffee shop.”

Originally published in The Marketplace of Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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