Cafe serves up Lifelong Lessons
Jeremiah Rushing, bartender at Old Skool Cafe, a violence prevention program that provides employment and restaurant skills to youth ages 16-22, pours beer for customers. Photographs by Emma Chiang
By Ashley Goldsmith
Auzhanne Starks was one of the last remaining passengers on the 24-Divisadero bus as it pulled up to its final stop in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. When she stepped off of the vehicle, the cacophony of the neighborhood was a change from the solitude of the nearly empty bus. Starks zig-zagged through the groups of shouting people like a pinball. A group of men tossed quarters against a bright blue wall and the coins let out a ding every time they hit the cement. Once she reached the iron gate at the entrance of Old Skool Cafe, Starks pressed a gold fingernail against the doorbell. She entered the building, closed the door behind her and stopped for a moment. She let out a sigh as she wrapped her neon green earbuds around her phone. Starks has been working on finding a balance between the chaotic world outside of this cafe and the calm and focus she has found inside.
Over the past year, Starks, 17, has been redirecting the course of her life. She explained that in the past she “lived a troubled lifestyle.” She was known for fighting, having a bad attitude and, what she shyly described as, “getting involved with gang violence.” She said her behavior made for long days, making it difficult to go to school in the morning, so she would skip class. She said getting to school wasn’t a priority when she was thinking about money and survival, because her family wasn’t helping.
Starks now lives with her mother but was previously in foster care. She is working toward graduating high school and has plans of opening a hospice care center. This process has been possible through job training and therapeutic services at Old Skool Cafe, located near the corner of Third Street and Palou Avenue in the Bayview, where she works as a hostess and busser.
“I’m tired of looking for my next meal, not knowing where I’m going next and always thinking of survival,” Starks said. “I want to get to the next level, plan my life and get away from bad people. I’m trying to be the little engine that could.”
Starks’ case worker at Seneca, a juvenile justice and probation program in Oakland, suggested she apply to the program at Old Skool. Once she was accepted, she started going to school more. During a career class at her high school, she met people who worked in hospice care. After learning what they did, she thought “I could do that.” That was when she started to set goals for herself.
Old Skool Cafe doubles as a youth-run supper club and violence prevention program for at-risk young people between the ages of 16 and 22. Students who enroll in the program at Old Skool partake in a 10-week training program where they learn all of the positions in a restaurant as a way to develop employable skills. At the same time, they work with life coaches, adult staff and community members to help guide them through obstacles they have faced in their lives.
The non profit organization was started by Teresa Goines, a former corrections officer, in 2004. Goines said that while working with incarcerated young men in jails she was tough during the day but on the drive home from work she would cry.
“I was always so affected by how many young people didn’t expect to live past their 18th birthday,” said Goines, who is called “Mamma T” by many of the students at Old Skool. “These kids should be playing baseball and going to the prom.”
She found many young men would be released from prison only to find themselves back a few months later. Determined to help break the cycle, Goines asked the young men she worked with what they needed and how she could find a lifelong solution that would compete with what the streets had to offer, but in a positive way. She learned that gangs offer a sense of family and a job, the two things that these young men considered important for survival and she set out to create that for them.
Students who join the program at Old Skool face a variety of struggles. Some are on probation or are in and out of foster care. Others may have a parent on drugs or in jail, or experience abuse at home.
Old Skool Cafe’s operation started small. It was initially a catering company and pop-up restaurant out of Goines’ apartment in Potrero Hill. It later expanded into a permanent space in the Bayview in 2012. At the time, Goines was living there and working with many kids who lived in the neighborhood. When the space was offered to her, she thought it would be the perfect location.
“The Bayview is a diamond in the rough,” said Romayn Williams, a manager leader at Old Skool. Williams’ family has been in the neighborhood for several generations. “It’s hard to see that when you see gangs and drugs around you and it’s always loud, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. This is my home.”
Over the weekend, Old Skool Cafe exists as a supper club with live music, comfort food and decor inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. During the week, it is more than just a job to the youth who are part of the program there. It’s a home, a classroom and most importantly, it provides hope.
The students, current and former, were reluctant to share details of their past but were eager to talk about their plans for the future.
Jeremiah Rushing is one of the students who is excited about what’s to come. Rushing, 22, is the restaurant’s bartender. He has been part of the program at Old Skool for three years and is now studying sociology at City College of San Francisco.
Rushing wore the standard uniform for male front-of-house staff at Old Skool: a red button-down shirt and a pair of black slacks. An undone bowtie hung around his neck. He said he hopes studying sociology will help him aid underprivileged kids in the same way that Old Skool helped him.
“It’s pretty rough being alone with no guidance,” Rushing said. “I want to try to give back what wasn’t given to me. It feels good when you see someone else do good.”
Rushing said school has never been easy for him. As a kid, he was in and out of foster care because of abuse at home and was bullied at school. He’d often go to class but sneak out shortly after arriving. Rushing said the abuse was too much for him to handle at such a young age. He was arrested six times between the ages of 14 and 19.
After seeing the disappointment in his father’s face at a probation hearing, Rushing decided he wanted to change. His probation officer recommended he apply to the program at Old Skool.
Initially, Rushing struggled with the tests given during training but eventually passed them. He then received his food handler’s certification, graduated from the program and is now someone who many of the young staff members look up to.
Starks described Rushing as someone who is like a “goofy big brother” to her. She explained that Old Skool is like a family and that going to work there is like going home. Her face lit up, a big smile highlighted the full cheeks of her young face when she talked about her new family.
“We help one another,” Starks said. “Then there’s moments where you can’t stand them but then you love them at the same time because at the end of the day you know that you have this connection with them. That connection feels strong and it won’t go away because you’re family.”
According to Goines, Old Skool’s main goal is to teach kids their self-worth through encouragement and positive reinforcement, while maintaining a strict set of rules.
A laminated sheet of paper that states the cafe’s code of conduct hangs in the server station. The page lists behavior that could terminate employment such as using profanity, being violent or promoting any gang affiliations. Outside of work, the students who are in high school are required to attend classes every day. The program is designed around their school schedules so they have a balance between work and school, which keeps the students busy enough to stay out of trouble.
“I’m proud that I’m actually doing something positive in my life because at first, I wasn’t even going to school,” Starks said. “In order to be at this job, you have to go to school. So now, I’m doing two positive things instead of just one.”
Richard Springfield, 23, is enrolled at San Francisco State University as a business major with entrepreneurial dreams. He was a cook at Old Skool for over two years thanks to the recommendation of a friend.
“I left here with a new persona. The way I approach people and my attitude is completely different,” Springfield said. “I learned that we’re all equal and to love everyone and to respect people more. I learned how to be more understanding of other people instead of always being mad at everyone.”
Once at Old Skool, many of the students begin to filter out the bad influences in their lives and learn how to choose their friends more wisely, Goines said. By doing that, a new set of challenges presents itself. Starks finds it difficult to live amongst her old friends, who she feels are not interested in changing like she has, but is unsure how she can find good friends.
“At first my old friends asked me to put them on with a job here and I told them that I would, but I didn’t,” Starks said. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to get away from you so why would I bring you somewhere that I work? I know that people change, but you know when somebody wants to change. I want to be around people who have the same goals as me, but it seems like it’s really hard to find.”
Others said that it can be difficult to maintain their progress when they don’t see big results happening quickly enough.
“The biggest challenge for me is not going backward,” said Cherelle Lavender, a 21-year-old lead cook at the cafe. “Sometimes it feels like everytime I take five steps forward, I take two steps back. I save my money and hope that I’ll be able to go to college soon, but I’m proud that I’ve made it this far. ”
Lavender has become well-known at Old Skool for her signature lavender cheesecake. Lately she has been focused on saving her money so she can potentially pursue a culinary degree. She started at Old Skool when it was a catering company in Goines’ home, and helped renovate the current space into what it is today. She splits time between San Francisco and Antioch where she cares for her younger brother who has Down syndrome.
There have been a few students who struggled in the program according to Lisa Litsey, managing director at Old Skool. She said one young woman got fired for her attitude and for not following the rules. After she was fired at another job for the same reasons, she returned to Old Skool with a different mindset.
“She came back and said, ‘Thank you, I really understand now and I see what the problem was before,’” Litsey said. “It may not look like traditional success, but the fact that the kids stay in relationship with us is one of our biggest goals. We want them to learn what it means to have a second chance. They need to know that it’s possible.”
Rushing chalked up much of his success to the support he’s received at Old Skool. He said that when you constantly hear you’re worthy of a better life, you start to believe it.
“I’m so inspired, just so inspired by everyone and everything,” said Rushing, smiling and pumping his fists as though he’d won the lottery. “Everyone here is just so nice. I didn’t get it at first, I just kept wondering why everyone was being so nice to me for no reason.”