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Serving up Opportunity

A student works the espresso machine at the coffee shop. © 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Serving up Opportunity

he Vine neighborhood’s Walnut & Park Café is dishing out more than just good coffee and freshly baked scones. For those who work there, the café is serving up opportunity with a side of skills.

Walnut & Park is part of a vocational training program of the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program (KPEP), which offers residential and non-residential programs for those on probation or parole as an alternative to incarceration.

The café, located at 322 W. Walnut St., is a cozy haven with high, open ceilings. As baristas busy themselves with the task of creating customers’ caffeinated pick-me-ups, it is easy to get lost in the whoosh of the espresso machine and the chatter of other patrons.

“I feel like there’s still a lot of people who have no idea (the café is part of a KPEP training program),” says Tera Staten, a vocational program manager at Walnut & Park. “They come in here, and to them we’re just a regular shop, which I think is also a nice compliment. We have such a high bar and high standard for our employees’ customer service, and they rise to it and exceed expectations.”

As vocational program managers, Casey Grisolono and Staten, both of whom previously worked for the local Water Street Coffee Joint chain, help to provide practical work experience and teach transferable skills to students in KPEP’s hospitality program.

Over the course of the 10-week program, students spend eight weeks learning soft skills in customer service and practical skills in culinary and janitorial service. By the end of the program, students will earn certifications in food handling, workplace safety and CPR.

“They’re really good at (making) scones by the end,” says Grisolono.

Students are also making personal changes as well. As KPEP President and CEO Bill DeBoer sees it, the program works to change criminal thinking, not just teach transferable skills. A typical student in the vocational program has a storied past with addiction and incarceration, says DeBoer. As the only accredited agency of its type in the state, KPEP gets some hard cases, he says. Often, he says, criminals think bad things happen to them rather than seeing their own role in their criminal behavior.

“They don’t think they can control their own lives because everybody they know, things just happen to,” he says. “Once you change that thinking, your possibilities are endless.”

“I think flipping that thinking is so interesting,” says Staten. “So when you talk to somebody (in the program), you say, ‘Well, how did you end up here?’ and so many times they’ll say, ‘Oh, I caught a felony.’ Well, you catch a cold. You can’t really catch a felony.”

“But I believe when we get them to accept responsibility for their failures, they get to take credit for their successes,” says DeBoer.

Contagious confidence

Jen Heath graduated from KPEP’s culinary program in July and became a barista at Walnut & Park the same month. Heath initially became involved with KPEP after violating the terms of her probation.

“These people had confidence in me and gave me confidence in myself, and I’ve already grown a lot,” Heath says.

Grisolono and Staten had no previous experience with an incarcerated population, and they admit that there have been challenges.

But, Grisolono says, “no matter how hard your day is, something good happens. (A student) will come up and teach (another student) how to brew a pot of coffee or correct behavior. So it’s those little things like just listening to them step in for us.”

Staten agrees. “I think that builds their confidence, “ she says, “and it’s like, ‘I trust you to teach the next person, be a role model for the next person.’ Sometimes it’s amazing. That does wonders for their confidence and the way they carry themselves. The transformation from week one to week eight is sometimes really startling.”

Heath enjoys witnessing those interactions too, she says, recalling the enthusiasm lighting up two co-workers’ faces when one successfully made latte leaf art for the first time.

“These women are facing the hardest time of their lives — I know it was for me — and they’re just encouraging and motivating with each other,” Heath says. “It’s really awesome to see it.”

Invested customers

It’s not just the students and employees who get excited about progress.

“I’ve noticed that our customers get very vested in our students and our employees,” Grisolono says, noting that just earlier that day a customer had been asking about how a student was faring.

DeBoer says the café can help change customers’ views of criminals. “In the criminal justice system, you think that all these people are monsters, and there are some — we’ve seen them over the years — but not everybody’s like that so it kind of puts a face on it.”

Customers obviously like what Walnut & Park is doing and making. Staten says there’s been steady growth in business since the café’s opening in March 2017. DeBoer says the café averages $22,000 in sales per month, and he considers the café’s first year to have been a success.

Such a success, in fact, that KPEP is planning to extend the program into another food-service arena: a diner. DeBoer says the eatery, named simply The Diner, is scheduled to open in 2019 at 1324 Portage St., in the Edison neighborhood. Grisolono and Staten will oversee the program there as well.

The diner is a natural extension of the KPEP vocational training program and will also help meet a growing need in the community, Grisolono says. There is a high demand for line cooks, and restaurants have a hard time finding qualified staff to fill vacant positions, she says. KPEP’s current culinary curriculum works well for the café’s menu, which includes scones, muffins, Danish pastries, breakfast burritos and sandwiches, soups and Panini sandwiches, but Grisolono is looking forward to teaching more specialized cooking skills in the new program.

“Being able to teach more hands-on food skills will give the community a bigger employment pool to choose from, and we would like to be the place where, if you are a business owner and you need staff, you come down here,” Grisolono says.

When asked what she wants people to know about Walnut & Park and the programs provided by KPEP, Heath says, “I want them to know that it’s saving people’s lives, like literally saving people’s lives. People walk in here and they walk out and they have an opportunity at a fresh start, a new beginning.”

Jordan Bradley

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