Restoring hope for underserved youth
Insights from Susan Trieschmann, Curt's Cafe (Evanston)
Susan Trieschmann, founder of Curt’s Cafe, has a habit of creating opportunities to improve the lives of those around her. Susan was born in Florida, but when her father passed away her mother moved the family to Deerfield, Illinois where she raised six children. Growing up, Susan had multiple jobs in the food industry, and then at only 24 years old she opened up a catering company called Food For Thought. She ran the business with her sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and Curt, as a way to provide job opportunities for the family: “I thought that my little brothers and sisters could do better if I provided them with something better.”
When Curt passed away due to lung cancer in 2014, Susan took time to think about her priorities. At 46, she decided to get her college degree. During her time pursuing a degree in Social Justice at DePaul University, Susan took a class called Restorative Justice. When she learned about the injustices of underserved youth she knew she had found her passion: “When I found these social missions, I found the spark again in my life.”
As someone who had started as a waitress at the age of 13, Susan noticed from an early age that her bosses--primarily men--seemed to make rash decisions without integrity. “I knew that I could do better than that,” she said. She knew she was just as smart, and that she wouldn’t shy away from the big decisions that business owners need to make. Plus, Susan didn’t feel influenced by expected gender roles after being raised by her independent mother: “I just didn’t see any boundaries to a woman…I saw women doing everything. I thought that was the norm.”
So, after earning her degree, she began to formulate the idea for Curt’s Café. Curt's Cafe is a nonprofit organization that provides restaurant training for at-risk young men who have come out of the prison system. Susan opened the doors to the cafe in Evanston in 2012, and only 3 years later she grew the business to a second location in Evanston to serve teen mothers and at-risk underserved girls.
Throughout the process of creating her own business, Susan faced discrimination as a woman of Guatemalan heritage. But she decided not to see her identity as something that could hold her back: “I chose to use [my identity] in the best way possible." She felt empowered in meetings with other female leaders and used all opportunities to apply for minority grants and contracts.
Today, the nonprofit has 30 students per café between the ages of 15 and 24. They go through training that not only teaches them marketable skills, but also offers a safe space to discuss dealing with personal obstacles like managing money and dealing with anger: “[We teach] all sorts of life skills that have not been a privilege to them before.”
Susan’s goal is to help solve the problem of recidivism amongst formerly incarcerated youth by providing the young adults with a job and community of support. After serving time, a prison record or a lack of proper forms of ID can make finding a job extremely difficult. Susan wants to break the cycle of returning to destructive habits to make ends meet: “I know that this is their last attempt to prove that they’re worth something.”
And Curt’s Café offers tools to guide trainees through this difficult post-incarceration period. A full time social worker helps them get their state IDs, driver’s license, find safe housing, and work through the trauma that they’ve experienced. The café has been very successful, with a recidivism rate of 3%, compared to the national rate of 67.8% after three years of release.
Susan says that the young men form their own community when more experienced employees help train new employees. The process fosters respect and gives them the opportunity to be part of a trusting partner relationship. The staff of the café end up seeing each other as family: “When we have a graduation…it’s like a cry-fest. And on mother’s day, I get 50 texts. It’s unbelievable.” Most of all, Curt's offers a space where the trainees feel valued and are reconnected with society: “It gives the community a way to meet these people...to say ‘we’re real people too.’” The motto says it all: "Dine with a purpose."