By Joey Phoenix
Buried in the back of Shetland Park overlooking the sun-sparkled waters of Salem Harbor is a nonprofit social enterprise changing the lives of underserved and at-risk youth in the North Shore community, giving kids the opportunity to learn on-the-job kitchen skills and life skills in a real-world setting.
This organization is called Root, and its main mission is to offer a rigorous 12-week, 200-hour, workforce training program that uses food preparation and service as its vehicle for teaching career and life skills to youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Essentially, it’s creating new, marketable opportunities for kids and young adults in the area that didn’t previously exist.
While the program itself provides on-the-job training and in-depth life skills like resumé building, one of the most useful aspects of the program is an eight-week externship with a local restaurant or catering business once the students have graduated. Root has partnered with more than forty restaurants and businesses – places like Ledger and Gulu Gulu Cafe in Salem, and Castle: a Board Game Cafe and Chianti in Beverly, among many others.
So while the students are learning important industry details like knife skills and sautée tricks, they also work to develop social and cognitive skills, self-agency, communication, and confidence.
“This externship program gives these graduates a chance to sharpen what they’ve learned in our kitchen in a real-world setting.” Programming and Food Service Operations Manager Michael May said. “It just proves that what they are learning at Root provides them with the tools they need to make it in this industry.”
Root Day to Day
Program Director Beth Alaimo met me on site at Root on a weekday afternoon to show me around the space and talk a bit about what goes on behind the scenes at Root. Previously, I had met with Michael May and Root Founder Jennifer Eddy to talk about the philosophy and history behind the organization, but just hearing the facts without seeing it in action just didn’t seem like enough.
This is because Root isn’t just one thing. It’s not just a catering company or an event space (HarborPoint) or a cafe or a working kitchen, it’s also an organization that cares, and the beating heart of the program is the kids and young adults who work their way through the program.
Recently, Root added a morning cohort – in addition to the existing afternoon, evening and Saturday cohorts – to the program, which allows for greater flexibility for those students who have other life responsibilities like spending time with family, working part-time jobs, and studying for the HiSet (formally known as the GED).
Anthony, a 22 year old currently involved in the program had worked in kitchens for seven years before coming to Root.
“I really like the vibe that they’ve got here, and the support. They provide a lot of support for things that need to get done like resumes.” He explained. “I need to get back on track myself, and they really helped get that set up for me.”
When asked about what it’s like to be in the kitchen day to day, he laughed and said that sometimes it can get tedious, but that it was a good thing, especially the part where he got to try his hand at baking, which was something he had never attempted before.
“You never know enough about cooking. It’s always good to know more.”
Another Root student, 17-year-old Damon, is also enjoying learning new skills in the kitchen. When asked about what his favorite part was, he replied quickly: “There isn’t a favorite part, I enjoy every day I come here. I have fun, I get to learn new things.”
When pressed further, he added: “Although, I do really like the sautée station.”
“Every time we have an event in this space, we get the current youth involved in cooking the food for it, setting up the space for it,” Beth Alaimo said as she walked me through Root’s kitchen, pointing out different stations and ServSafe certification diagrams that catered to different learning styles, “It’s a really cool opportunity for us to hire and give on the job training.”
Jobs with Root don’t just exist for students currently going through the program, but Root also provides opportunities for alumni to come back and work with the organizations. Alumni can work catering events either in front or back of house – everything from passing out appetizers and taking people’s coats to preparing the food that goes on tables.
“While we don’t allow current students to work the barista station at Root Café,” Alaimo explained, “We do hire the alumni back to work this station as part of our ongoing efforts to support them even after they’ve graduated.”
Root Then and Now
When Root opened its location in Shetland Park in 2018 the organization was building on years of development and experience. Founder Jennifer Eddy’s combined experiences of traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia and exploring the operations of Nonprofit Social Enterprises in the United States like Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans and Haven from Hunger in Peabody led her and her team to create a model that would work on the North Shore.
The idea was to create a rotating set of classes which would provide the opportunities to learn these skills to as many young people as possible. The difficulty would be in providing these on-the-job training at no cost to the participant. All that students needed to do was the ability to show up, a desire to learn, and a willingness to do the work required by the high paced nature of the industry.
The current winter cohort is in the final stage of the program where they are choosing their externship locations, which is an exciting time. It means that they’ve gone through the kitchen and life skills preparation training, have seen it in action at Root Cafe and in event spaces, and it’s now time to take it into the real world.
“In the past, I used to just assign them a restaurant because I didn’t know what we were doing,” May recalled, “Now they’re in the position where they’re picking the spot, they’re contacting the managers, they’re setting up their shifts, and they’re going.”
After a year of operations Jennifer Eddy, Michael May, and the rest of the organization are thinking about what’s coming next.
“Everything we were doing at the beginning was about building something that didn’t exist yet,” May said, “And that’s very exhilarating, it’s scary, it’s difficult. And at the end of the day it’s very difficult to identify what you’re doing right because there’s nothing there, and anything is better than nothing.”
As Root’s evolved into a living, breathing, working entity it’s progressed from a project that’s being built to a project that’s been refined. Also, because it’s settling into something more secure, it’s opening up more opportunities for the organization as a whole.
“We want to open satellite locations,” Eddy said. “We recently had a student from as far away as West Newbury, and the only reason that worked was due to the dedication of a family member to get the student to the training sessions, which is not something that’s possible for everyone.”
She explained that the commute creates a whole new set of challenges that would be solved if there were smaller Root centers spread around the North Shore. “It’s a lot easier if a site is in their community.”
Yet, Eddy is aware of the risk of extending Root’s operations and what that would mean for the future of the organization. “We have to treat this as a business,” She said, “Because if you expand and you do too much, too quick, too soon, you’re gonna fail.”
Anyone involved with the nonprofit world understands that more than half of nonprofits fail within their first year, but despite the odds, Eddy is confident that what Root has built over the last several years has the proper foundation to see it through this next period of growth.
“You have to take risks,” she said with a gleam in her eye.
How You Can Support Root
On the second Wednesday of each month, Root, in partnership with Mayor Kim Driscoll and Saltonstall School, hosts a Salem Community Meet and Eat where members of the community can come and enjoy a delicious and healthy meal prepared by Root and participate in family-friendly activities at no charge.
The next one will be held on Wednesday, March 13th from 5:30 – 7:00 pm at Saltonstall School, located at 211 Lafayette Street in Salem.
If you miss this one, the next one will take place on Wednesday, April 10th.
In addition to the Meet and Eats, there are also several more ways that you can get involved and help Root reach their goals. Although financial contributions are always extremely helpful, you can also assist in their mission by volunteering. Click here for a full list of how you can support this organization directly.
In addition to this individual-based support, Root is also looking for more business partnerships and supporters. Contact Faith Emerson for more information at 978-616-7615.
Joey Phoenix is a performance artist and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at firstname.lastname@example.org