Its pinstriped awning and brick facade may remind Chicagoans of any bakery in the city, but Blue Sky Bakery, 3720 N. Lincoln Ave., incorporates another ingredient into its business model: social change. Lisa Thompson, the nonprofit’s executive director, hires at-risk and homeless youth for 12 weeks to teach them hands-on customer service.
Thompson arranges weekly meetings with social workers for the youth she employs to learn conflict resolution, time management and eventually find a full-time job.
The Chronicle spoke with Thompson about why she started the bakery and her struggles and proudest moments working with at-risk youth for the last decade.
THE CHRONICLE: How did Blue Sky Bakery start?
LISA THOMPSON: My background is in nonprofit work.I had done a lot of work with adolescents who were leaving the foster care system and saw that a lot of them really struggled to successfully live on their own. They really didn’t have the resources to find and keep jobs, so I started volunteering at a shelter for teens and working with them on job applications and seeing there really was a deficit in programs that teach the young how to work.
It’s not enough to teach them how to fill out an application or create a resume. They really need to be given opportunities to work in environments that understand their background; understand they are in unstable housing; understand they may be coming from two or three bus lines to get to work. I really saw a need to create something that was specifically designed for them.
Is there any achievement you are particularly proud of with the bakery?
Any of the youth I’ve seen truly transition from homelessness to independence because of employment always makes me feel good. Blue Sky is part of a process of people making different decisions, taking control of their lives and having hope for their future. A lot of these youths had absolutely no hope. They do not expect to live past 30; they don’t expect to ever have a full-time job.
To the extent that we have been able to be a part of that, just in terms of teaching them to believe in themselves, there are good people in the world that want to help them succeed.
They face a lot of barriers and are great about keeping in touch. Whether it is on Facebook or texting, they will send me a little message saying “Hey, just got my next apartment,” or a picture of them in their new uniform at their new job, or a picture of their baby. It feels great. I don’t take responsibility for that but hopefully, we have been a small part of the change in their thinking. If they know how to make perfect scones, that’s great and that’s a nice skill to have but we are more about changing their perspective on their future.
Have there been any pitfalls with the work?
One of the issues I’m seeing more recently [is] youth [being] beaten up waiting for the bus out of their neighborhoods. Because they are supposed to stay in their neighborhood and people see them with other tattoos or they don’t respond with the right gang signs, they will get beaten up. There were four youth in a row that were doing everything they could to get to work, and they kept getting attacked.
We had one who made it through eight weeks of the program just doing an amazing job. He was a really sweet man. He knew he had made a lot of bad choices and had been very active in his gang his whole life, but was here rolling out pie crusts that were easily better than mine. He was just a natural in the kitchen. We got a call one day from his probation officer that he had been stabbed four times getting on the bus to come to work. He survived somehow but has ages of physical therapy ahead of him.
I can help the youth find different ways to come to work, but aside from that, there is nothing I can do.
What reactions have you seen from the community?
I’m pleasantly surprised at how supportive the community is, in terms of corporate catering clients, nonprofit catering clients, people reaching out all the time wanting us to cater their weddings, and really realizing people love this idea. They love the idea of at-risk youth working.
There are people of course who think it’s not a good idea, but I am encouraged by people every day who say, “I just love this idea. It makes me feel really good to see that they are getting the chance to work.”
Why should programs like your business exist?
There is an unlimited capacity for programs like this, and it would be phenomenal if there were 100 more programs like Blue Sky Bakery in Chicago because, at the end of the day, everyone has to start out working somewhere.
The difference between this and my first job—a yogurt shop where I left in tears and had a totally chaotic first week—is that here, we can sit down with you. We can say, “Hey, this is another decision you could have made. This is a different way to handle that.” They don’t get fired for making mistakes. So many other businesses could incorporate those kinds of lessons without becoming a nonprofit.
What are some misunderstandings or stereotypes about hiring at-risk youth?
When they are here from day-to-day, I don’t think they need constant reminders of the way they were raised or a big scarlet “m” for misdemeanor, but I get a lot of people wanting to bring their little kids in to meet the youth.
Does it make them feel better about themselves or does it make them feel like they are on display? People are well-intentioned, but there is a little bit of misunderstanding about how it would feel if you were in their position. Let’s say you became homeless and your family became homeless. Would you want another family to come meet you as a homeless family?
I try to find as many opportunities for the youth to be able to focus on their strengths and their assets, and not be asked questions about their backgrounds and mistakes they have made.