By Shelley A. Sackett
Last Wednesday evening, over 200 people filled Root’s elegant HarborPoint event space overlooking the harbor at Shetland Park, enjoying fine food, stylish table settings and festive lights. The well-heeled patrons were not gathered for just another holiday party. Rather, they were attending a third birthday party fundraiser for Root, a non-profit culinary-based training program for at-risk youth. They also celebrated honoree Deborah Jeffers, Root advisory council member and school nutrition director for Salem Public Schools, who received the 2018 Root Community Leadership Award.
Mayor Kim Driscoll hosted the Third Annual Gala and presented the award to Jeffers. “Who doesn’t like an organization that helps kids?” Mayor Driscoll asked rhetorically as she kicked off the formal program.
The Mayor spoke of Salem’s relationship with Jeffers, who eleven years ago proposed a food program in the public schools to provide fresh, wholesome, scratched-cooked meals with locally sourced ingredients. Today, this initiative has gained national attention and provides more than 900,000 nourishing meals a year. Every Salem school student gets free breakfast and lunch, regardless of need.
Jeffers also connected early on with Root founder and chairman of the board Jennifer Eddy to offer advice about setting a program that could both serve Salem Public School kids and be successful. “She is an exceptional partner and it is a pleasure to honor her,” Mayor Driscoll said.
Jeffers spoke briefly about the importance of food growing, preparation and sharing as a community to help lift us all up. “I don’t usually speak in front of a group. I’m more of a back room kind of person,” she admitted.
Root is a social enterprise that focuses on the food industry as a training tool for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24 who have significant barriers to employment. Through a rigorous 12-week, 200-hour, work-force training program, students (called Program Partners) learn career and life skills through hands-on experience. “Root is the on ramp for youth in Essex County with an obstacle to success,” said M. Scott Knox, Root executive director.
Proceeds from the event will help support Root’s Essex County job skills training program.
It all started when Eddy had an idea she wanted to pursue to give at risk youth an opportunity to build a better life and break the cycle of poverty. She had visited and was impressed with D.C. Central in Washington, D.C. and Liberties Kitchen in New Orleans, two successful programs that use the culinary arts to train motivated young adults to access employment and education, and develop their skills as leaders and mentors.
When she returned, she put together a group of people, including her friend Elisabeth Massey, who serves on the Root board as community volunteer. They used the same structure and training program model Eddy encountered in D.C. and New Orleans. “She took the best of those two organizations and tailored it to our needs in Salem,” Massey said.
The result is Root, which operates a training program as well as several lines of food service-based businesses out of its Shetland Park facilities. These provide a training environment for the students and also generate revenue to support the mission. They include: The Root Café, which offers breakfast and lunch items; Catering By Root, and HarborPoint at Root, a new 2,200 square foot special event site. “Kids in the program learn by working in a real business,” Massey said.
Training is an intensive curriculum that runs Monday-Friday with four-hour morning and afternoon shifts. Program Partners attend life skills workshops, one-on-one career readiness coaching, and culinary training in Root’s on-site full catering kitchen. Root graduates are equipped with industry-certified credentials and direct skills that give them a sense of accomplishment and an advantage in seeking employment. “They leave Root with the skills not just to get a job, but to keep a job,” said Knox.
Referrals to the program come through the school system, the Department of Children & Families, social workers and word-of-mouth. Candidates who demonstrate a “barrier to success”, such as socio-economic level, housing status, or learning disability, go through an application and interview process. The average age is between 18 and 19 and Root just graduated its fifth cohort, marking almost 100 graduates in three years. “We really try to do whatever we can to be successful,” Massey said.
Recent graduates Nicky LeBron and Cassandra Bartholow praised the program. “For the first time, I felt like I was able to accomplish something for myself. I learned to be more proactive. I learned what I’m good at is working with people,” said Bartholow, whose mother works in Shetland Park and heard about Root.
LeBron is a 2018 Salem High School alum. On the last day of school, his class took a field trip to Root, and he knew immediately Root was for him. “What I loved about Root is — everything!” he exclaimed. “My mentors also felt like my friends. I could go to them about anything, not just cooking.”
Root is located in Shetland Park, 35 Congress Street, Building 2, Third Floor. For more information or to volunteer or make a donation, visit rootns.org or call 978-616-7615.