Albany culinary training program helps youths facing unemployment

Underneath Kela Brathwaite’s chef toque is a young woman wanting more out of life.

Underneath Kela Brathwaite’s chef toque is a young woman wanting more out of life.

Thursday, the 20-year-old Amsterdam native sliced carrots at the Culinary Tech Center within the Albany Elks Lodge, the site of a free state training program giving Brathwaite and other young adults a career and a recipe for success.

Brathwaite said she tried being a cashier at Price Chopper and previously earned her GED from Hudson Valley Community College, but wasn’t satisfied.

“I seen something more for me,” she said. “I’m trying to do something good and get out of the neighborhood I’m in.”

Brathwaite’s neighborhood was the same place where she was stabbed in the back and hand on New Years Eve, near the area of Clinton Avenue and Lark Street. But that incident wasn’t the worst she’s experienced. She nearly lost her life in a 2001 stabbing in the same neighborhood.

“She cut my main vein and they had to take a vein out of my foot and put it in my arm,” she explained. She wants to move away, but lives with her mother and sisters for the moment because she can’t afford to move out while in school.

But Brathwaite looks forward to brighter days. In two months, she’ll graduate from the 6-month culinary training program in Albany. She hopes to be a chef at a local restaurant and be someone her three sisters can be proud of. She hopes to one day own her own business.

“I would like to show them different; that [life] is more than what we see every day. Where we live at, they call it the ’hood. People sell drugs. They’re doing nothing with their lives or are smoking drugs. I just want something better for me and my family,” Brathwaite said.

The state Labor Department estimates that at least 20 percent of youths in the Capital Region face unemployment.

“We can perhaps give them the opportunity that they may otherwise not have,” said Harold Kaplan, vice president of the Culinary Tech Center. “What we’re trying to do is give them the skills to move forward.”

The Culinary Tech Center began its six-month program in Albany last fall, receiving a $221,000 grant to train 20 young people for restaurant industry jobs. It is operated by New York City-based Culinary Technology Institute, which also runs programs in Yonkers and Queens.

The tech center describes the disconnected youth population as the “overage but unaccredited” — people who are not in school because they dropped out, or have a substance abuse problem, may be on parole or are just simply unemployed.

“Most of the people we deal with can’t see two years down the road. They want to come in, get trained, get out and go to work,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said the program’s goal of an 80 percent graduation and placement rate comes with holding each student’s hand and getting them to where they need to be.

State Labor Commissioner Colleen Gardner said the summer youth jobs program is currently set to be cut in Gov. Paterson’s budget proposal, but programs under the “Disaffected Youth” grant help to mitigate such potential cuts. The grant for the program came from $5 million in federal stimulus funds disbursed to the department.

“This will help, but we’re also trying for additional summer youth employment money,” Gardner said. “We’re getting anxious because we’re getting close to the summer. This is the first year we don’t have any funding for it. The programs that put these kids in jobs will have a tight turnaround when the funding gets approved.”

Gardner said Thursday that study after study shows the No. 1 predictor of future success in the workplace is early exposure to work experience. Statistics that show that nearly one in five young people are unemployed indicate that too many “aren’t getting the early foundation for workplace success,” she said.

Leo Rosales, a state Labor Department spokesman, said finding more job opportunities for youth is vital to the economy.

“Whenever a youth gets a job, they spend the money. They don’t particularly save the money or invest the money. It’s high-velocity dollars that goes right back to the local economy,” said Rosales said. “So when you have tens of thousands of youth in a state who don’t have any jobs, that can multiply into tens of thousands of dollars that’s not being pumped back into the economy — a loss in consumer spending.”

Albany’s Culinary Tech Center at the Elks Lodge teaches the ins and outs of the food industry, including menu planning and basic work skills, and offers job placement services.

A new class will begin March 29 and slots are available for the free program. For more information, contact program director Christy Jerome at 438-1126.

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