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Blue Sky Bakery helps at-risk youth, one shift at a time

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Updated: May 14, 2014 6:35AM

When Steve Simms was 22, he was living on the street and desperately in need of an opportunity. Someone gave him a job at a bakery. His tenure was just 12 weeks long, but it made all the difference in the world. Three years later, he’s working at another bakery, shares an apartment with his girlfriend and is confident his skills can land him a job in any kitchen in Chicago.

“I never would’ve known that place existed, but some specialists were able to get me an interview,” says Simms. “I was both homeless and at-risk, [but]it worked out great. I built up my resume.”

“That place” is Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe, a North Side non-profit that employs homeless and at-risk youth for 12 weeks and gives them a solid place to work, learn and earn. Now 7 years old, the 3720 N. Lincoln establishment is the brainchild of former social worker Lisa Thompson. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in criminal justice, she worked for the state’s attorney’s office, and then, several youth-oriented non-profits. Then she decided the best way to help was to offer jobs to teens and young adults.

“It was a crazy idea to everyone, including myself,” says Thompson. “I’d been volunteering at homeless shelters for awhile with teens. They have so much capacity to learn, but they need to be trained. You can’t just tell them to ‘fill out a job application and go get a job.’ ”

The young adults, ages 16 to 24, start out earning minimum wage, but could earn more if they are working toward a GED or if they already have a high school diploma. Thompson, unlike more traditional employers, also understands their situations, which may lead to staffers showing up late — or not at all.

“These are youth with very complicated lives,” she says. “With some, their child-care situation becomes unmanageable, so they call in to work. A lot of these youth just don’t have the resources, and employers expect them to know how to balance all these things. For a lot of them it’s too much to do on their own without some help.”

While there is no direct correlation between jobs and crime, the University of Chicago Crimelab is in the midst of a study that might be on to something provable — and positive — on that front. University of Pennsylvania faculty member and Crimelab researcher Sara Heller is studying several groups of teens from violent Chicago neighborhoods who were given summer job opportunities starting in 2012. She says the study is being run similarly to a clinical study, with a control group and a group that “won” jobs in a lottery drawing.

“What we found is that the summer jobs program has a huge impact on violent crime arrests,” says Heller, adding that, of the youth being tracked, nearly 30 percent already had police arrest records. “After nine months the youth who participated in the program showed a 51 percent decrease in violent crime arrests. It suggests we might be able to reduce crime with an employment program.”

Blue Sky is not a summer program, nor does it only work with kids involved in violent crime. For Blue Sky, homelessness is as much an issue as anything else. Nor is anyone saying that there is a definite correlation between youth, homelessness and the city’s crime issues. That said, the Crimelab’s research could explain the issues. And it seems safe to say jobs of any sort are beneficial, especially if they are year round.

That’s partly why Thompson was recently awarded a $1,000 prize from Mutual of Omaha, as part of their “Aha Moment” campaign. She wants to encourage people to help, even if all they do is divert their daily coffee fix from Starbucks to Blue Sky.

“There is so much fear,” she says. “There are so many people who have never had an opportunity to spend time with a 19-year-old kid from Englewood. They see their mugshots and don’t see these kids as individuals and as humans who are struggling. I’m not defending any violence or criminal activity, but fear gets in the way. I was fortunate (in how I was raised), and I’m well aware that many, many kids are not raised. I have compassion for them. A lot of people just see the consequences and don’t see the causes.”

Twitter: @adriennewrites


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