Like all of you, I’m struggling to navigate the blind corner after blind corner that the coronavirus is throwing down as it cuts through our lives.
Each time panic starts to creep in, what most steadies me is contemplating who I want to be in the midst of this crisis. I am determined that physical distancing -- and its evil twin, our unhinged competition for food, safety and even toilet paper -- will not limit my heart.
That’s why, as we begin another interminable week, I’m focusing on this: Pandemics are always toughest on those who live on the margins, the most invisible among us whose stories rarely show up in our Facebook feeds or lead the nightly newscasts.
Right now, 35 of those vulnerable local folks -- all of them teens still employed, however tenuously, by Café Momentum in downtown Dallas -- are modeling the way to best live in this terrible time. They don’t have time to worry about their own futures because they are too busy creating meal kits for needy school kids and their families.
In a restaurant space temporarily transformed into an emergency food hub and distribution center, these at-risk teens -- once kicked to the curb as failures -- are determined to keep others from going hungry.
When the coronavirus began shutting down local restaurants last week, nowhere was that action crueler than at the fine-dining-while-doing-good Café Momentum.
Since 2015, the nonprofit has provided guests exceptional food and service courtesy of a staff of kids fresh out of the juvenile detention system and now gaining critical skills from an employer who nurtures them -- but also holds them accountable. The interns don’t get just a paycheck; wraparound services provide education and counseling.
Nineteen-year-old Demondric Pratt is one of Café Momentum’s second-chancers. He started its 12-month internship program but quit when his mother relocated her family to Houston. As best Café Momentum founder, CEO and executive chef Chad Houser could tell, things seemed to be going OK for the young man after the move.
But in the early morning hours last July 12, Demondric began blowing up Houser’s phone with calls and texts. His mother, Pamela Pratt, had been stabbed to death overnight in an SUV in front of their home. Demondric’s only lifeline was Houser and Café Momentum, where he now is working again and has risen in rank to train and mentor other interns.
Demondric took a break from building meal kits to talk about his life: “The person I have grown to be, I would say is -- I am a much better person than I was then. I have really grown up a lot.”
He remembers many times when he and his mother had to look to others for food. “To be on the giving side of that now makes me happy,” he told me. “That makes me feel like I am doing something so important and changing someone else’s life.”
Demondric expects to complete all his high school credits by May. Houser can’t hide his bursting heart when he talks about the transformation of the young man from an untrusting intern who too often played hooky from school and work to “now winning intern of the week and student of the week.”
“To be able to go through all the crazy uncertain times of right now with him right now is a true blessing to all of us,” Houser told me.
Stories such as Demondric’s are why, the moment the coronavirus began chewing away at restaurant reservations, Houser realized he needed a Plan B.
When the interns aren’t working, they benefit from the nonprofit’s nearby community center space, which provides programming to stabilize their lives through a home-school operation, one-on-one therapy and financial literacy training.
Of the 900 or so interns who have completed their Café Momentum training, only a fraction have backslid: 15%, far below Texas’ almost 50% reincarceration rate.
“We are with these kids from morning through late evening,” Houser told me. “Even if they don’t have class on a Tuesday morning, they are still showing up and hanging out because we are a safe place for them, we’re a respite.”
Houser tries to look beyond the coronavirus’s kick in the gut and use it to model another “pay it back” moment for the interns. “We’re telling folks in the community that we hear your cries that you need help feeding schoolkids and here’s a way we can be part of that solution.”
The interns hope to build 1,000 kits a week, each of which will provide four dinners for a family of four. That’s 16,000 nonperishable meals along with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Everyone involved understands the high stakes behind creating the safest-possible work environment. The interns are organized into small groups of multiple shifts throughout the day. Workstations are set up throughout the restaurant so people work at least 6 feet apart. Sanitation stations and regular breaks are required for repeated cleanings of both surfaces and hands.
Two well-known names in Dallas philanthropy and business, Ashlee and Chris Kleinert, planted the idea for the food hub, which initially will fill a gap for Richardson ISD students, including those in Dallas’ Lake Highlands neighborhood. Get Shift Done Relief Fund is covering their pay.
What’s lacking are the funds to continue buying food for the meal kits. You can make a donation above. The restaurant’s partners at Stand Together Foundation have pledged to match all donations dollar for dollar, through the Imagine Dallas Inc site.
The pandemic has stripped an unfathomable number of service industry workers of security, but the Café Momentum kids are among the youngest and most vulnerable. These are teens with no reliable family; their lives are all they have.
Too often, our community -- through both benign neglect and blatant “othering” -- has left kids like these to fend for themselves and fight for survival, which too often lands them in the justice system.
Once released, where do they go for help? What if they have no one to call?
Houser stepped up to create a place for those kids to land, and he’s hell-bent that the coronavirus won’t defeat his interns. Demondric’s trajectory at Café Momentum is a living, breathing reminder of why.
“The kids deserve all the credit, not me,” Houser said. “They are the real heroes. They are the ones who show up every day.”
By showing up, they also are showing us the way forward. The needs in our community are great right now, but I hope the many of us with plenty can help keep their charitable food hub in business.