From the streets to cookie sheets

By Colin Shively

The sweet scent of muffins, scones and other assorted pastries waft through the oven doors and into the sitting lounge as they are placed behind glass cases and rested upon trays and dishes. Fresh coffee is brewed and the employees are busy at work, cooking more pastries. Yet these baked goods were not put into the oven by seasoned confectioners. They were baked by previously unemployed homeless youth.

Dan Thompson / The Chronicle

Timothy Reliford prepares cookies in the kitchen of Blue Sky Bakery, 4749 N. Albany St., which employs homeless and at-risk youth.

At the Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe, 4749 N. Albany St., which opened on May 1, troubled and previously homeless youth in the Chicago area are getting a chance at a new life by being given the opportunity to acquire skills in the working class world, said Lisa Thompson, the executive director of Blue Sky Inn, a nonprofit organization that works with young homeless adults who are jobless. After opening its doors, Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe has already begun to give the homeless a new home—and a new life.

“All the youth that I work with have all stayed or are staying in a shelter or have experienced what we call ‘chronic homelessness,’” Thompson said. “That is where they have had at least three periods of being homeless in their lives.”

After working with homeless youth for the past six years at Blue Sky Inn, Thompson considered opening a bakery to benefit the young adults in the Blue Sky Inn program, she said. While seeing the need for jobs and job training increase throughout her time at Blue Sky Inn, Thompson concluded that she could use her passion of helping young adults to open a bakery that helps train youths to get a job, she said.

Tim Reliford, a new employee at Blue Sky Bakery and Cafe, could not be happier to have the opportunity to get ahead in life, he said.

“This is a great place,” Reliford said. “I want to do acting. I am working on going to school to do theater. The bakery and [Thompson] are going to help me get there to do those things.”

All of the employees that currently work at Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe have either been homeless, are homeless or have a criminal background that prevents them from

getting other jobs. However, homeless youth cannot refer themselves to the bakery; the youth must be referred by a caseworker or by Blue Sky Inn in order to be considered, Thompson said.

The average age of the employees is between 17 and 25 years old, with all different cultural backgrounds represented in the staff of the bakery, Thompson said.

Dan Thompson / The Chronicle

Nancy Cazzola and Timothy Reliford prepare cookies in the kitchen of Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe, 4749 N. Albany St. Cazzola and Reliford found the listing for their jobs at the bakery posted in the Broadway Youth Center, 3179 N. Broadway Ave., an orginization that offers a variety of services to youth.

“All the youth I have right now have criminal convictions on their records,” Thompson said. “Two of them are felons. We have diversity here in the workforce, and they are not bad kids. They all wanted to work here and become better people. We just need to give them the chance.”

Chris Schulte, a new board member at Blue Sky Inn, said Thompson’s bakery idea was one of the best ideas to help the young homeless community.

“We have art programs that run at some local shelters,” Schulte said. “But [Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe] is something that can help the community by giving them some good food and by giving this city’s troubled youth a place to get back on their feet.”

Employees of the bakery learn the process that is involved to bake all the pastries, which are made onsite every morning, Thompson said.

The list of pastries is a rotating menu, meaning that every day brings different pastries and sandwiches than the previous day, Thompson said. Some bakery items include a pear, ginger and almond scone, chocolate-chip muffins, cinnamon rolls and an assortment of fresh sandwiches that range from vegetarian to ham and swiss.

Apart from learning the baking skills, the employees of Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe also learn the skill of managing a business, Schulte said. They learn how to balance money, take stock and some of the employees, depending on past experiences and level of commitment, learn how to be managers and how to work along with coworkers.

“I really hope it will help get them to the next phase of being an independent adult,” Thompson said. “All of these youths receive public aid and some social security, but I hope they learn that after working full time, they can live on their own in a safe and stable environment. Some of my workers have even voiced interest in going to college when they have the opportunity to.”

The Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe offers free Wi-Fi to anyone with a laptop. While not open, the employees either work other jobs given to them by their caseworkers or help at local volunteer centers that cater to other homeless youths.