More than a meal: Café Reconcile strives to help connect young people with the skills they need to break barriers

Joseph Exnicios, September 30, 2020

Every 8-weeks or so, a new group of individuals descend upon Central City in New Orleans a little uncertain of what the next two months will hold. Many of the individuals walking through the door at Café Reconcile to begin their job training program have been disconnected from work or school for some time; however, the staff at Café Reconcile is eager to highlight how everyone can have a success story.

Reconcile Cook

Prep Work

Locally known as a spot for a great soul-food inspired lunch, Café Reconcile is more than just a meal. It’s on a mission to help individuals identify and overcome barriers to get reconnected to work or school explains Café Reconcile Executive Director Gerald Duhon.

“People see our café and what happens there, but what is really important is our philosophy and how we connect these young people to work. Our belief is that when a young person comes to us, there is nothing that they lack that we need to give them; the challenge that they have is a number of barriers and our goal is to provide the support they need,” Duhon says. “We have health experts on staff, social workers on staff, youth advocates on staff—they are the ones that are really doing the work. Yes, the interns are working and learning in the café, but ultimately they are learning how to beat barriers.”

Each year 85-100 interns complete Café Reconcile’s job training and life skills program which focuses on teaching hospitality and culinary techniques along with professional communication, emotional health and financial education skills. “These young people are motivated, they want to do this,” Duhon describes. “100 percent of the interns have chosen to come to us. They are choosing to enter our program on their own, it is not mandated that they attend.”

Upon graduation from the program, interns are matched with employment and begin working in the real world, but the relationship with Café Reconcile doesn’t end. Café Reconcile feels it is important to provide ongoing support to their alumni and see more than 250 alumni return annually.

Reconcile _ Joe

Cafe Reconcile graduates join Hancock Whitney associates (from left to right: Sunada Brookins, Joe Exnicios, and Janelle O'Brien) and Cafe Reconcile Executive Director Gerald Duhon to commemorate a donation to the program.

Perfect pairing

For many years, Hancock Whitney has been a proud supporter of Café Reconcile both through financial support and associate volunteerism, and that’s what Duhon says makes the relationship with Hancock Whitney special.

“What sets apart our relationship with Hancock Whitney is that their support was not just a one-time deal. The team is always thinking about us—finding opportunities for funding through their own grant program, through partner programs like the New Orleans Pelicans Bank Dem Shots and the New Orleans Saints Move Dem Chains, or through ways to connect us with others who can support our mission,” Duhon shares. This is especially important since 50 percent of funding for Café Reconcile’s programs come from grants and donations.

But the support for Café Reconcile and their interns doesn’t stop with a check presentation. Hancock Whitney associate volunteers play an important role in the ongoing partnership.

For Hancock Whitney associate Janelle O’Brien, working with Café Reconcile is more than a volunteer opportunity—it is the start of meaningful relationships.

Since 2018, O’Brien has visited intern classes to discuss banking basics and help the interns set their own financial plans. “My goal is to really get the students to think about their own personal situation and to change their mindset about finance,” O’Brien shares. “Many of the interns have bad past experiences with banking, so I try to really create a bond that the interns can count on me and reach out to me with any questions.”

Duhon sings O’Brien’s praises, describing how she goes above and beyond. “Janelle really loves our kids, our mission, and has really taken a personal interest in our program by delivering the financial education to our young people and helping them set up accounts or debit cards. But Janelle goes even further – she comes to our graduations, she really gets to know these kids. I see her and her colleagues here supporting the café, and that means a lot.”

Janelle Reconcile

Hancock Whitney associates Janelle O'Brien and Brian King share lessons on money management with interns at Cafe Reconcile.

Expanding the menu

Just as every business and organization has used the COVID-19 pandemic to re-evaluate, Café Reconcile is no different. The shutdown provided an opportunity for Café Reconcile to further discuss some ideas they had been bouncing around including expanding their curriculum to other job industries such as electrical work and healthcare.

“2020 has allowed us to ask the larger questions about having different pathways. We’re seeking opportunities that have a baseline of information that our young people can get some type of base education and certification to launch them into the entry level of a career.”

Duhon explains how they’ve seen early success having some interns get certified in the basics of electrical work and moving on to apprenticeships with electricians, however they never tend to stray from their hospitality roots.

“What we’re realizing is we want to keep our hospitality identity. It’s a good start to go from hospitality to an electrical or healthcare pathway, because hospitality is a great learning experience,” says Duhon.

No matter what the future holds, Duhon is certain he can depend on Hancock Whitney and their associates for support. “It is a deep and enriching relationship that I’m very appreciative of.”