Curt's Cafe brings people together

More than 250 people celebrated at Curt's Cafe's sixth annual fundraising dinner last night. The event took place at the Unitarian Church of Evanston. It was emceed by Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre's Artistic Director Tim Rhoze and featured Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival's founder Kevin Koval.

I was honored to introduce Curt's Life Changer Award to Lori Oleinick Dube, who worked closely with Curt's founder Susan Garcia Trieschmann to launch Curt's on Central Street and Curt's Cafe South on Dempster.

Curt's student-trainees, 15 through 24 years old, live in at-risk situations--they may have had contact with the judicial system, or they're homeless and/or food insecure, or they may have dropped out of school. They are determined to build a positive future for themselves.

For these young adults, being able to get and hold a job contributes immeasurably toward their success, and that's what Curt's does: the cafe enrolls four or five students at a time and trains them for three months, supporting them by teaching life and job skills and providing them with a stipend as they learn.

"Our students aren't 'projects,' but people, and they know we believe in every one of them," Susan said.

"I'm reminded in sudden moments how much our work changes lives. When I happen to catch two young students at Curt's South giggling with each other during a break--two young women who started at the cafe a few months ago with eyes cast down, their faces somber. Our work helps to make the sound of girls giggling become more of a norm than it is in some communities," she said.

"The other day I ran into one of our students in downtown Evanston," Susan continued. "I was wearing a Curt's t-shirt but he didn't know who I was. He asked if I worked at Curt's and I said yes. He told me how he had grown up in gang life, how his father was in a gang, and that his house was a gang house. He told me that in his life he had often felt that it didn't make a difference whether he lived or died, but that since he started at Curt's he's realized his life is worth living."

What's next for Curt's? thanks to support from Open Communities, Curt's plans to increase the number of young adults it serves by opening a third cafe--CC3--this one in Highland Park (want to donate? curtscafe.org/donate/. Specify Highland Park cafe in the memo section).

Here's what Kevin Koval had to say about his experience learning about Curt's and the amazing, resilient students and dedicated staff who keep the coffee, scones, salads, sandwiches--and customers--coming!

"I've been doing youth non-profit work in Chicago since probably 1996 or 1997, and have had occasion to spend hours and hours and years and years with so many organizations. And I think people are doing great work in Chicago and the Chicagoland area, but I've never really met an organization quite like Curt's that I think is answering really one of the most dire issues of our time.

"Having an answer to the school to prison pipeline is something that we all must account for. I've been teaching at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center since 1997 and prisons across the country since 1999, and too often I think what gets in our way in this country is the lack of understanding about one another.


"I think we are intentionally kept apart. We are intentionally segregated, and so therefore we rely on the worst in our imagination about our neighbors and people who live in parts of the city that we ourselves are not familiar with.

"And that's what builds borders and that's what builds prisons. And I think that part of why I've been so impressed with the work of Curt's Cafe is that this is a place that brings people together across every imaginable boundary that typically, historically has kept us apart.

"And it brings us together in a space where you can have a warm cup of tea. Where you can get to learn about one another regardless of who you are, regardless of where you come from. And I think if we are going to build a better country, Curt's certainly contains one and maybe many of the answers that will get us there."


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