Reconcile pays students $800 to undertake a rigorous program. It begins with three weeks of training in life skills: being on time, code-switching, trusting authority. A staff social worker spends time with the students least prepared for service work. Then comes five weeks of working in the café itself; students rotate between the floor and the kitchen. They graduate after four final weeks working an externship, generally with one of the nonprofit's partners — say, a hotel kitchen downtown, a catering company, or a hospital café.
Hopefully, that turns into a full-time position. "We have some students who are living out of a car, living on the street, bathing at Walmart with a child," says CEO Glen Armantrout, who spent most of his career as an executive at Acme Oyster House, a century-old French Quarter restaurant chain, and took over at Reconcile in June. "Then they get a job, they get an apartment, they start paying rent — that's how we help them."
I watched Terrica Elvis, a 19-year-old Ninth Ward native, work her first day in the café. She had all the confidence of a longtime server, smiling often and generously at both the diners and her coworkers. She's not the hardest-luck case, but it still hasn't been easy for her family. They've been unable to repair Katrina's damage to their home, so she, her parents, her two older sisters (each have two jobs), and her niece share a small house in New Orleans East. "Some of my brothers turned in the wrong direction," Elvis says, speaking about drugs and crime. "That was all I knew. It's a big change for me to be given the opportunity to be somebody."
Reconcile, which opened its doors in 2000, says it has placed 90 percent of its graduates. In the past two years, the average starting salary was $9.25 an hour. The organization did not have an especially rigorous data-tracking system, and Hurricane Katrina wiped out whatever bookkeeping existed. Then the group began to reimagine its curriculum and scale up. In 2008, it had 58 students; this year, the number will be 160. In 2011, the most recent year with good data (Reconcile closed for six months of renovations last year), 62 percent graduated, and, of those, 82 percent still had jobs a year later. "They do great work," says Cmdr. Robert Bardy of the 6th Police Precinct, in which Reconcile is based, who was eating there when I visited. "And they have the best red jambalaya in the city."
Coaching doesn't end when students leave the program. Reconcile recently hired a job-retention specialist to track graduates for a year after placement in the workforce, studying their wage increases and promotions. "Our goal is not simply to help our youth find a job, but to help them build a career that will result in a legitimate pathway out of poverty for themselves and their families," says Dave Emond, the development director. To that end, Reconcile is adding postgraduate courses on financial literacy. It trains managers across town on how to employ its graduates — that is, how to handle them with care and help integrate them slowly into the workforce. It partners with a local dermatologist to offer a 90 percent discount on tattoo removal.