Recidivism. Repeated or habitual relapse, as into crime. In Texas, the recidivism rate among young men is approximately 47 percent.
For just a moment, fight the inclination to blame lack of effort. Picture yourself at 16 – practically invincible and walking a thin line between adolescence and adulthood. Sure, you’re familiar with the concepts of “right” and “wrong,” but in a single parent home where food is scarce, distinction between the two has a way of becoming blurred. You steal, you sell drugs, you join a gang – you survive.
This is a familiar cycle for many young men assigned to juvenile detention facilities, but it doesn’t have to be. Chad Houser, Executive Director of Café Momentum, realized that the solution to stopping these boys from stirring up trouble, was stirring up ingredients.
Houser’s idea for change originated at a Dallas Farmers’ Market event where juvenile detention residents participated in the annual ice cream social as part of their pre-release program. Each opponent aimed to awaken the taste buds of passersby with a simple spoonful of homemade ice cream. So, who took home the prize? One of those young men that society once categorized, “unsalvageable.”
“What surprised me was that they did not all fit the stereotype. They spoke with manners, they had a firm handshake, they were very eager and they were very grateful,” Houser explains. But one exclamation left Houser feeling unfulfilled “Sir, I really love to cook!”
“It bugged me. I had such a good time with those kids, but I knew they weren’t going back to a good place – bad homes, bad schools, bad neighborhoods.” So, I guess you could say this Chef decided to cook up a recipe for success.
Café Momentum, “a restaurant and culinary training facility,” is the first post-release program offered through Youth Village Resources of Dallas and aims to build upon critical skills learned in pre-release programs. Youths are taught in an internship capacity while “continuing to develop leadership, vocational and social skills for as long as they choose to maintain involvement,” states the organization’s website; and at Café Momentum, there are simply never too many cooks in the kitchen. Last year, the program served 79 at-risk young men.
But it isn’t just the kids Café Momentum serves that benefit in the long run, the community benefits as well. Participants of the program have a recidivism rate of approximately 11 percent – so, while around 40 of those 79 kids should be back in the facility, only around 7 actually are. And did you know the cost to put an adolescent back in a juvenile detention facility is approximately $125k of taxpayer’s money? We’ll let you do the math.
So what really makes Chad Houser’s brainchild so successful? After all, not every young boy dreams of being a world-renowned chef one day. That’s easy; it isn’t all about cooking. Café Momentum has plans for rapid expansion and is currently in the process of negotiating a location for a restaurant. Their goal is to serve over 100 kids a year in a variety of ways. With an in-house classroom, “we’ll offer courses in financial literacy, parenting, anger management and even an unofficial book club,” an enthused Houser adds after explaining their recent partnership with D Magazine’s Big D Reads.
The boys simply need solid, stable and consistent mentors in their lives, an environment that exudes positivity and points them in the right direction. “They just need to see they can do it,” says Houser, explaining that one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is watching the boys gain confidence in the kitchen which later transfers over to other areas of their lives.
So, what happens when these young boys complete their internship? They’ll have experienced, not only the restaurant industry from the bottom up – busing tables, serving customers, acting as “sous chef” – but between 12 different chef mentors working to expand their knowledge, they’ll also have a resume complete with a variety of different references.
Additionally, Houser includes, “We constantly ask the boys ‘what career goals do you have?’” Fortunately for the young men, everyone has to eat; the customers filtering in and out of the restaurant provide excellent networking opportunities for those who have dreams beyond the kitchen.
For Chad Houser, this is so much more than a job. This is the opportunity to improve lives and futures by simply changing the mindset of at-risk adolescent boys. Recently, Café Momentum completed their 32nd consecutive Pop Up dinner where all 120 tickets sold out in minutes – showcasing some of Dallas’ top chefs, where participants of Café Momentum helped to serve.
Café Momentum is also a beneficiary of the Fork & Cork Media Party, allowing the young men to be surrounded by positive adult role models. “I always say, I take kids out of jail and teach them to play with knives and fire,” Houser laughs, but he really provides them with a fresh start, a clear road map and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams; and the results have been phenomenal. The young boys whose lives Chad Houser has touched call him on a regular basis, “the biggest marketing tool are the boys who have been in the program themselves. It has a tremendous impact on them and it never gets old.”