Three years ago, New Orleans native Nicholas Burfect saw a flyer that changed the course of his life. Attending a GED program while caring for two young children, Burfect was drawn to the words “Liberty’s Kitchen” – where every day, jobs are created, lives are changed and, because it’s New Orleans, plates of red beans and rice come hot out of the kitchen.
Burfect, at the time in his early 20’s and searching for a path to success, applied to the Youth Development Program, an intensive life skills, job training and professional development course for any and all youth. Teaching a combination of hospitality and life skills, Liberty’s Kitchen takes youth – many of whom haven’t completed high school and are lacking steady employment – and teaches them the skills to work in some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants and hotels. It’s the type of holistic training that teaches young people professionalism in a hospitality environment alongside money management skills, like signing them up for bank accounts.
For the city of New Orleans, somewhere around 16,000 low-income youth aged 16-24 are considered “disconnected” by Tulane University’s Cowan Institute, programs like Liberty’s Kitchen are closing that gap.
“We see the incredible problems facing young people in New Orleans,” says Liberty’s Kitchen Executive Director David Emond, who also is a member of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s newly launched Community Leadership Network. “We’re just one piece of a solution.”
In just five years, Liberty’s Kitchen has trained 300 New Orleans youth in its professional development program. But as Dennis Bagneris, program director at Liberty’s Kitchen, is quick to point out, “Liberty’s Kitchen is not a culinary school.” For Bagneris, “We’re trying to give kids a second chance at life.”
Bagneris spends much of his day finding potential enrollees for Liberty’s Kitchen’s programs – attending midnight basketball games, talking with law enforcement officials and meeting people throughout the city wherever he can. Once in the program, the students are trained, coached and mentored by Bagneris, who keeps in touch with nearly every one of the program’s alumni.
Each of Liberty’s Kitchen’s alumni has a story to tell about what brought them to Liberty’s Kitchen. And nearly every story includes Bagneris. For 22-year-old Kenisha Charles, she was sitting at a nail salon across the street from the Liberty’s Kitchen café on South Broad Street.
“I walked across the street that day, met Mr. D (as Bagneris is known around Liberty’s Kitchen), and the rest is history,” said Charles, who graduated from the program and now is supporting herself as a prep cook.
The development program at Liberty’s Kitchen provided Charles and her peers in the program with a path to financial stability, so heavily sought after by young people in New Orleans. It has helped Charles obtain housing and has improved her quality of life, all of which she credits to Liberty’s Kitchen.
“I knew exactly when I started that I didn’t want to be anywhere else than here at Liberty’s Kitchen,” Charles said.
Success stories like Kenisha Charles’ have led Liberty’s Kitchen to significantly expand its presence in New Orleans. Funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has enabled Liberty’s Kitchen to sustain its reach to youth across the city, while developing innovative approaches to have a positive impact on the city. In addition to the youth development program Liberty’s Kitchen operates a well-regarded café and catering business, serves more than 4,000 fresh and nutritious meals to 1,500 students across the city every school day and recently engaged in a bulk food retail partnership with Whole Foods.
Their partnership with Whole Foods is part of a new development on North Broad Street in New Orleans called The ReFresh Project. Anchored by a new Whole Foods supermarket, the newly renovated building also contains collocated offices for some of New Orleans’ most important food and community nonprofits, including Liberty’s Kitchen and FirstLine Schools.
This summer, Liberty’s Kitchen is consolidating all of its operations out of this new center. The one-mile move north on Broad Street will mean significant changes for the nonprofit.
“Our capacity for meals and school partnerships will double,” Emond said, adding that he also expects to double the number of spaces available in the Youth Development Program as part of the move. He also is looking forward to the partnership and collaborative opportunities that will arise by working in the same building as some of New Orleans’ other high impact nonprofit organizations.
But at the heart of Liberty’s Kitchen remains the program, which has impacted more than 300 lives in the last four years. And every day, Bagneris will greet the young people whose lives Liberty’s Kitchen is seeking to impact.
“I tell every person who walks in our door, ‘the world has not yet decided who you are going to be,’” he said.
For Nicholas Burfect, now 25, those words are empowering. Before finding Liberty’s Kitchen, Burfect spent nearly a year in a New Orleans jail. Today, Burfect’s past and present are juxtaposed on mirroring street corners, as the Liberty’s Kitchen café sits just less than 100 yards from the jail.
The world had not yet decided who Nicholas Burfect was going to be when he walked through the doors at Liberty’s Kitchen. Now, his life is that of a budding food industry professional working as a sous chef for Liberty’s Kitchen. In Burfect’s eyes, Liberty’s Kitchen has the ability to “turnaround a life” – and his story is a testament to that.
For a city that’s had to rebuild itself since Hurricane Katrina, its people are doing just the same – with the help of programs like Liberty’s Kitchen.