Late last month, our Employment Centre was transformed into a celebratory scene.
Balloons decorated the row of computers, a string of colourful tulle balls hung from the wall, a gold metallic fringe curtain hung in the doorway ready for the special guests to walk through.
Youth who normally show up at Covenant House wearing their chef uniforms entered one by one donning their regular clothes, with big smiles on their faces.
It was Cooking for Life graduation day – and these youth had earned their celebration!
“I’m so proud of each and every one of you,” chef instructor Sonya Gammal said to the group. “I wish each and every one of you a path you will follow that you will be proud of, one that you are making for yourself.”
Cooking for Life has become one of Covenant House Toronto’s most successful employment programs, equipping youth not just with the kitchen skills they’d use in a restaurant kitchen job, but with the tools they need to become solid employees anywhere: Time management skills. Negotiation skills. Teamwork. The importance of showing up every single day, getting to work on time and taking a break that is 15 minutes and no longer.
The program is known in restaurants across the city, many of which welcome graduates with open arms and opportunities. Upon completion of the 16-week course – eight of those weeks working on pre-employment skills workshops and the other eight in the kitchen – youth have the chance to put their skills to use in a professional kitchen with the ultimate goal of getting hired. A handful of the graduates were preparing to start work in local restaurants this summer.
In recent months, our Cooking for Life team expanded the program to add further wraparound supports to its work with youth, says Fred Shayo-Mushi, the Interim Manager of Support Services. This means linking youth up with a counsellor or a housing worker to help them with anything that could be holding them back from fully participating in their education or in a working life.
Staff who spoke at the graduation ceremony emphasized the importance of the teamwork and community the youth had built together throughout their time in the program.
“I’ve never actually seen a team work so well together,” said Employment Counsellor Ryan Dickie. “Definitely keep up those connections as you go.”
Sibena Peters works directly with the youth day in and day out, whether it’s in the kitchen making alfredo sauce or strawberry rhubarb crisps, preparing the garden up on Covenant House Toronto’s rooftop, or heading out on an excursion to spots like Black Creek Community Farm where they can learn about how local produce is grown and harvested.
“Ten years from now, when you think back to this time, I hope some of your memories are good ones,” the CFL youth worker told them. “Enjoy the journey.”
Once certificates were handed out, it was time to eat. A highlight of the spread, which featured pizza, sushi and cannoli, was the berry and mint-adorned pavlovas – a recipe the youth had chosen and made together, led by one of their graduating peers.
The ambitious dessert – which requires 20 minutes of beating eggs into fluffy meringue – was a testament to the talent, hard work and determination present in that graduation ceremony. Something the youth will take with them on their path forward.