How your morning coffee can empower at-risk youths

The sputtering of espresso into a takeaway cup continues – a soundtrack on repeat – as suit-bearing, board short-wearing, and shoeless customers join a growing queue. It’s summer time in Darwin, Australia, and the sun is relentless. But that’s not keeping anyone from the coffee, with a story so good the taste is just a bonus.

It’s an unassuming venue (a food truck, to be precise) that attracts business people and backpackers alike. But at the Cafe One Coffee Trailer, the staff serving up your flat white have endured more than a bumpy road to get it to you.

The roaming project of Mission Australia started just last year, but they’ve already welcomed 35 youth into their empowerment program. Cafe One offers a twelve-week training course for employment skills to young people, ages 16 to 24, who are disengaged from employment or education, at risk of or experiencing homelessness, or struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health conditions. They’re awarded nationally-recognised food safety and barista certificates through the program after eight weeks, followed by a month of on-the-job experience running the food and coffee trailer.

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Students sitting in front of a coffee trailerWhen one customer reaches the front of the queue, he places his order. “Latte and a cheese toastie.” Kaitlyn scribbles an ‘L’ on the cup. “Your name?” “Jack.” He points to his name tag – from a popular burger spot down the road – in case she didn’t hear.

It’s not long before David Taylor, Cafe One’s facilitator, catches Jack’s eye. He notices the uniform, and the name tag, and is almost brought to tears. It was only a few months ago that he met Jack*, a 17-year-old boy who left school in Year 10. After another day of endless torment from bullies, Jack came home, shut himself in his room, and refused to go back. Two years passed as his mother tried everything she could – to no avail – for him to leave the house. But he wouldn’t, laying in the fetal position, communicating through shrugs, grunts, and the occasional yes or no.

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Late last year, Jack’s mum got in touch with Mission Australia. With an in-home visit, David was able to persuade Jack to join the program. His head remained firmly planted on the desk, from 8 AM to 3 PM, for week one. But the fellow students – many having been bullied themselves – didn’t taunt him; they embraced him. They asked him questions, they invited him to lunch, they showed him kindness. And when given $100 each to spend on absolutely anything, they all pitched in to get Jack an appointment with the optometrist. Another student had noticed him squinting at the board.

Now Jack, holding his latte, smiles at David through his horn-rimmed glasses. They don’t need to say much; the caseworkers at Mission Australia already know what all the students are up to after graduation. David helped Jack and his new friends learn to budget, get IDs and learner’s permits, apply for tax file numbers – all of the practical things that young people need. He walked them through building their resumes, dressing and grooming for the workplace, and what to say in a job interview (plus what not to say). Caseworkers made sure they had the mental and emotional support to be independent. That way, when they’re ready to be employed, they’re actually ready.

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Two students standing next to a fridgeAs for David, he’s confident that there’s hope for anyone, no matter how hard they’re struggling. There’s no such thing as failure here, he tells me. “They just couldn’t succeed at the time.”

For many of these young people, they’re the first in two or more generations to secure sustainable employment. Empowering one person with the skills to earn an income can be life-changing, not only for them, but their entire families as well.

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With a grant from The Intrepid Foundation, Cafe One will support an additional 40 young people through the skills-building program by 2020. Plus, thanks to the funding, David will get the much-needed support of another staff member. If you’re travelling through Australia’s Top End, you can grab your morning brew from the travelling coffee shop to see (and try) it for yourself.

Cafe One is more than just a pathway to employment. It’s a new community, free of judgment and teeming with support, where young people like Jack can see where a cup of coffee can really take them.

To find out more about how you can help empower youth with skills for life, check out The Intrepid Foundation website here.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

All images C/O Cafe One Coffee Trailer.