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Wildcat offers on-the-job learning

By Staff | Dec 22, 2008

You never know where you are going to find inspiration in your life, or when and where your dreams will take shape.

Some troubled youths had no idea what was in store for them when they were sent to Elmore Academy: Youth Services International.

Every morning at 203 East Willis St. they receive on-the-job training that many probably have never had the likes of experiencing.

Imagine. Getting up at 6 a.m. to spend six hours serving meals, taking orders, stocking, preparing food and cleaning up — including washing dishes.

“Our main goal is to get them back into society and give them the skills so they can get a job. A lot of them don’t have a clue what it’s like to work out in the real world,” says Cinda Hagedorn, manager of the Wildcat Cafe.

It’s all part of a work-based class implemented by Carolyn Dixon, a teacher at the academy.

After losing its space at the local grocery store, YSI purchased a building at the east end of Main Street and a grand opening for the cafe was held in July.

From 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday, Hagedorn and Mercedes Wallace tutor students in the day-to-day operations of running a restaurant.

“They are very respectful and quick in learning whatever chores they need to do,” says Wallace. “We learn from each other.”

YSI students attend classes a minimum of six hours a day, five days a week, in addition to the other programs they’re involved in.

Juniors and seniors also are given the chance to earn academic credit working at the Wildcat Cafe.

“I tell them this is a job, the real deal. You have to take it seriously,” Hagedorn says.

All the teens working at the cafe have had a brush with the law.

Two of them are runaways, one has been charged with assault and criminal damage to property, and a probation violation for a weapons charge landed another at the Elmore school:

• Karen S., 16, of the Mille Lacs Lake Reservation wants a career in retail, perhaps in fashion;

• Latressa R., 16, from the St. Cloud area plans on attending college to become a dance instructor or choreographer;

• Quinton W., 19, of Minneapolis hopes to be a chef one day;

• Josh M., 17, of Backus has his sights on being a professional dirt bike rider;

• and Justin S., 15, of Duluth has no idea what career path he’ll pursue.

For now, they’ll have to settle for the food industry.

“I like helping people. I am a people person,” says Karen, while getting water ready to wash some dishes and utensils.

Latressa keeps busy making coffee and toast and waiting on customers.

“Writing down orders and making sure it’s right can be hard sometimes,” she says.

Like a page out of a college economics book, students get a lesson in ‘consumer sovereignty’ — the concept that the customer is always right.

“They are our kings and queens,” Hagedorn tells her students. “We’re here to serve them.”

Quinton loves the town of Elmore and working at Wildcat.

In fact, a chance encounter with an Iowa Lakes Community College professor at the cafe convinced him to enroll in a hotel and restaurant management program the school offers.

The thought of working at the cafe didn’t sit too well with Quinton at first. He didn’t know what to expect of the customers — many who are elderly — and what they would think of him.

“I quickly learned not to judge others and treat people how I want to be treated,” Quinton says.

Awaking at 6 a.m. hasn’t been a problem for Justin. He says he’s an ‘early-riser,’ getting up at 5:30 every morning.

“Can we make cookies today Miss Wallace?” asks Justin.

With a nod of approval he begins placing cookie dough on a baking sheet.

The students always refer to their instructors as Miss Hagedorn or Miss Wallace.

They’re ‘bossy’ and can be ‘real slave drivers’ are a couple of phrases the students use when describing their teachers.

“She’s (Hagedorn) funny. But, she gets real serious when we get busy,” says Karen. “She wants things done right.”

Adds Quinton, “They’re both excellent teachers and explain things to us.”

Latressa totals a customer’s bill using a calculator, while Karen tells a couple she didn’t know what divinity candy or egg nog was until coming to Elmore.

The woman does her best to describe the holiday treats.

“It’s really sweet,” the woman says of divinity. “I’ll make some for you.”

Learning how to communicate and listening to others are among the skills students acquire at Wildcat.

Hagedorn says local residents have been very supportive of the business and are always willing to talk and interact with the students.

Josh admits he expected working at Wildcat was going to be a bad experience.

To his surprise, he found residents in the community were willing to give him a chance.

“By just talking with people I can change what they think about me,” says Josh. “I didn’t know how they were going to react to a kid who’s been in trouble.”

Justin, like Josh, has learned there are times when a person has to rely on others to get things done.

Ask Justin what one change he has seen in his behavior and he’ll tell you it’s patience.

“I’ve learned to accept criticism and feedback from others. I now see it as a way to improve myself,” he adds.

Whether it’s obtaining a work ethic or gaining other social skills, the students receive a lesson on life.

There’s the realization of having more in common with other people than they think.

“Everybody has problems, not just me,” Quinton says.

In less than a week, Quinton would be leaving YSI. He’s returning to Minneapolis, just in time for the birth of his child.

In January, a class in hotel and restaurant management is scheduled to start at Iowa Lakes.

But, Quinton says he’ll put his plans on hold for now. He’s going to concentrate on being a dad.

“I don’t just think about myself anymore,” he says.

Quinton, like the others, has learned his lesson well.