In-Person Training Returns for Youth FareStart Baristas

May 23, 2023

Youth and young adults ages 15 ½-24 in our Barista & Customer Service Program Job Readiness Pathway have returned to in-person training, three years after the COVID pandemic forced a shift to online-only learning.

Students are gaining valuable hands-on experience that goes far beyond brewing coffee and espresso. They’re learning how to build a resume and cover letter, interview with confidence, speak in public and show up as reliable, accountable employees — all skills that help prepare them for the real world.

The program is designed for teens and young adults who are low-income, unstably housed or experiencing homelessness. FareStart partners with the Y Social Impact Center and Gifts of Hope to receive referrals and provide wraparound support services that help students move forward on their pathway to personal stability and economic mobility.

Students in the program spend the first half of the eight-week program online, learning self-empowerment, customer service, personal accountability and other important life skills. Then they report to the FareStart Café in Amazon’s Houdini North building in South Lake Union for four weeks of in-person, paid training, where they're dealing with real-life, high-volume situations – operating the espresso machines and making drinks, stocking, staffing the register, interacting with customers and working with teammates -- experiences which give them a competitive advantage when they go looking for full-time jobs. And with a 1:1 student-to-trainer ratio in the cafe, students have mentors that they can turn to for advice, support, encouragement and job referrals when it comes time to graduate.

It begins with establishing mutual trust and respect. FareStart Youth and Young Adult Online Manager Chermell Cain (she/her) explains it this way: “I think that first and foremost, before you even put making coffee into the mix, it's each trainer’s first priority to make sure that these students are heard and feel safe. And so, the students in return, I feel like they make sure that they are showing up and showing that respect.”

When it comes time to train in the café, students have gained a foundation of trust and confidence that makes them ready to take the next step. “It’s being able to make eye contact with somebody every single day,” says Chermell. “Being in that atmosphere where you have the space to mess up. You have the space to make mistakes and see that nothing is going to happen to you and see that you will still get supported.”

The impact of this in-person training is quite profound. “The on-the-job portion of the training is really the part that stands out to me,” says Leslie Horton (she/her), Director of Employment Training at the Y Social Impact Center. “Having the ability to work in the cafe with the trainers where they are actually serving real people with real food, changing real money … you can make mistakes on the job, you can learn. It's going to set you up so much better for success than when you just get shoved into the working world.”

There’s a big focus on showing up — on time, every day. “That is the one thing you need in the job market. It doesn’t matter how awesome of an employee you are. If you can’t show up or be reliable and dependable, you’re not going to have a job,” says Sazurice Williams (she/her), who brings nearly a decade of experience at Starbucks to her job as the FareStart Café Manager.

Showing up for yourself or your job takes resilience and self-respect, and the trainers emphasize that throughout the program. Chermell holds her students accountable every step of the way: “I play no games online. I’m like, ‘I know we're online, but you still have to show up a certain way. I can't want this more than you want this.’ Because to be quite honest, I tell the kids all the time, ‘I have a job. Do you? How are we going to get you to that place of employment? How do you think you need to start showing up for yourself? Is it okay that you're just rolling over and hitting that screen and you're still in bed? Or do you think you need to be sitting up, great posture, and ready to go?’ There's a certain way that you need to show up to every situation, regardless of if it's in person or online. You’ve still got to show up."

Showing up for yourself and your job isn’t always easy, says Sazurice: “We teach them how to sit down and interview and get a job, but also how to adopt and show that you're an employee with a growth mindset who can actually retain a job in the long term. Not every job is your friend, you will have to do things that you don't like or you'll have to push through sometimes, but take all those things as experiences that build yourself as a person and be like – ‘Okay, this is exactly why I am worth it.’”

Trainers pay close attention to obstacles that can make it challenging for students to succeed in the program. Without a permanent address or bank account for paychecks, forms such as a social security card or birth certificate, cellphone, work clothes or access to transportation, students can face an uphill battle.

“We don't always know how capable someone is because they're so stuck in whatever barriers or obstacles that they have,” says Sazurice. “But nobody is their situation. Nobody is their mistakes. If you have a desire to get out of your situation or to just grow as a person, then I want to be somebody who can help you do that.”

One student, for example, had to take three buses from Auburn to get to the FareStart Café. He slogged through his morning shifts looking exhausted and unengaged, so Sazurice offered to switch him to afternoons only. That was all it took for this student to go from struggling to thriving.

“I try to lead with my heart on my sleeves, but there's still times when I wonder, ‘Oh, maybe they don't want it enough.’ But you never really know what somebody is going through. Just changing Tyler’s shift, I saw a complete night and day,” Sazurice said. “He was talking to customers. Trainers really enjoyed him. At the end of it, he was going to apply to a Starbucks near him in Auburn. He felt the program really helped him come out of his shell.”

Sometimes students face setbacks that are beyond their control, like a trainee who got COVID and missed a full week of training — too much for them to be able to catch up with the rest of the cohort. At first, they thought their only option was to drop out. But Sazurice wouldn’t let that happen. She invited them to return with the next cohort, picking up where they left off with in-person training. They went on to finish the program, saying that every day “was such a magical experience — I always felt so loved and appreciated and seen.”

That was a powerful life lesson for a student. They reflected on this at their graduation ceremony: “It's just really hard planning so many things for yourself and for your life, and to feel like they get disrupted so often. And so I’m really proud of myself for being so consistent and being so committed to myself. Everything isn’t clear cuz it’s still in the future, but I feel really confident in where I’m going.”

Graduating from FareStart marks a significant and emotional milestone in the lives of every student who completes the program.

“Many of the young people we serve in this program have never completed something like this,” says Leslie, “or haven't been celebrated for things in their lives. They might've dropped out of school. Or they haven't found a stable job or had the means to maintain one. They haven't had a lot of opportunities for success. So to have a graduation celebrating their completion and success, where all these people come together to show them how important and special they are to this community, I think that's transformative."

The graduation last month was the culmination of a lot of hard work, commitment and belief in the power of people. Sazurice sums it up this way: “I've learned that when you pour your heart into people, they will surprise you with what they can achieve and what they can do.”

FareStart’s Barista & Customer Service Program offers a second distinct pathway to meet students where they are. The Education Advancement Pathway is offered in partnership with Seattle Public Schools (SPS) for students ages 15 ½-24 who are enrolled at Interagency Academy or Nova High School. SPS students earn credit and a stipend as they learn self-empowerment, customer service, personal accountability and other important life skills. The Education Advancement Pathway remains virtual for now, but we hope to resume in-person training later this year.

There are more good things to come. The Barista & Customer Service Program has worked with over 1,600 students and assisted with hundreds of customer service job placements at local retail, food service, coffee shops and other businesses. With over 100 students graduated in 2022, we have ambitious plans for the future. FareStart hopes to enroll 150 students in 2023 and to expand into multiple new locations to provide more on-the-job training for more students. We are actively planning to expand our barista training program to our Pacific Tower location in Beacon Hill. New spaces require new equipment, though, so FareStart is busily sourcing its options. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming months.


Learn more about our Barista & Customer Service Program for youth and young adults.