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While working as a job counselor at Jewish Family Service in 2017, Brad Volin became convinced that job training and placement would only be successful if people’s basic needs were first met. That’s why he pivoted from a career as a serial tech entrepreneur to community service and established the nonprofit Housed Working & Healthy (HWH) in 2018, which began serving individuals in 2020.
“You can’t have a job or keep a job if you don’t have housing,” Volin says. “You can’t have housing if you don’t have a job and you can’t do either one if you don’t have your mental health. [HWH] addressed all three of those…. Housing is provided while they’re in our program through one of our partners, and we focus on [food industry] job training and mental health.”
HWH works with partner shelters for those experiencing homelessness to identify and enroll participants in a three-to-four-month program that teaches them culinary and life skills so they can not only graduate with a job in the food industry but also have the tools to continue excelling in their professions. About two-thirds of their time is spent in HWH’s commercial kitchen learning from two accredited chef-instructors using a curriculum co-developed with Emily Griffith Technical College Quick Start and the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart programs, which also involves earning their ServSafe certification.
HWH has been experimenting with revenue generation through social enterprise, partnering with local coffee shops and establishments to provide student-made wholesale baked goods and snacks such as cookies, brownies, granola, and holiday pies. It also partners with social enterprise businesses such as Cafe 180 and GraceFull Cafe to provide students with on-site experience.
But while they’re in the kitchen, participants also learn a lot of mental-health-related skills, Volin says. That includes working with other people in close contact and addressing their anxiety. “We have two instructors, but we also have two case managers and we also have two employment coaches…we’ve gotten over 50 people employed now and none of them have failed because they couldn’t cook, [failure] is almost always because of mental health so it’s a critical piece that we address through peer support, specific programming, and more,” he says.
To date, HWH has enrolled over 130 students, including 70 graduates and nearly 30 current program participants. One of them is Mamata Barry, who traveled across the country to Colorado with her partner and two young children for a better opportunity. To pay for food and gasoline, Barry and her partner delivered groceries for Instacart until they made their way to Denver. Only three weeks after arriving, their car broke down and they bounced from shelter to shelter until landing at Family Promise. Because of her passion for cooking (her grandmother was a chef for 25 years), the outreach manager at the shelter referred her to HWH.
Barry’s been in the program since late December. On a typical day, she arrives at the commercial kitchen at 8:30 a.m., when participants can grab a prepared breakfast before gathering to go over the agenda for the day. “Then we’ll go into the kitchen, which is divided into entrée and baking sections, for two hours and prepare meals…. After a break we’ll come back in and finish cooking either for ourselves or for our wholesale orders,” she says.
After all the cooking, baking, and clean-up, the students then attend workshops on a variety of topics. “As you’re advancing closer to graduating, they’ll have you [attend talks] relevant to your job search—it could be applications, talking with an employment coach, etc.,” Barry explains. “We have guest speakers that might do things like writing or journaling, or we’ll talk about topics around mental health, specifically PTSD.”
What really convinced Barry of the program’s effectiveness is its emphasis on housing and transportation—participants are driven from and to the commercial kitchen. In a city where public transit is inaccessible to many, it has been a game-changer for the program’s retention rate, says Volin. Guaranteed housing and transportation is how participants have the stability to attend training up to four days a week before graduating to a culinary job. In addition, students are paid a stipend of $35 a day and many students work part-time at Chipotle and Sprouts, to which HWH also coordinates their transportation.
Right now, HWH is solely focused on culinary job training because of the industry’s lower barrier to employment for nontraditional applicants, propensity to reward creativity and entrepreneurship, and relatively short training time. It’s not a requirement for program participants to have experience cooking or baking, and instructors are able to teach them an employable level of basic skills in only a few months. However, Volin hopes one day HWH can expand to other job industries and serve more people. To do that, HWH needs to increase its funding.
Currently, its operating budget is $1 million, which pays for nine staff members and a commercial kitchen space. The majority of the funding comes from foundations such as the Coors Foundation and Caring for Denver, but a significant portion comes from individual donors, which is why it’s throwing an inaugural fundraising event on April 27. The event will not only give HWH students catering experience but also let them share their personal stories of working towards housing and employment.
As for Barry, she’s already secured two jobs: one with the Boys and Girls Club partner program to cook for and educate local low-income children in afterschool programs, and the second with Elephant Circle to create postpartum meals for families who struggle to afford maternity care.
“I think there’s so many people in the community that see homelessness and are discouraged by it or angry by it. And they have no idea that there’s so many people [like Barry] and others that want to work, that are willing to work hard, that want to show up every day, but they need support to make that happen,” says Volin. “It’s incredibly inspiring and I think [to hear their stories] would help heal the community to see so much positive change happening here in the city.”
Cocktails and Conversations will feature gourmet food and testimonials from Housed Working and Healthy students, a raffle, and more. Cableland, 4150 Shangri La Drive; April 27, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; advance purchase of tickets required and available online