NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — On any given day, Cameron Carver might be found preparing braised short ribs or pan-roasted scallops for people dinning in downtown Nashville; but four years ago, his life looked very different.
At the age of 15, Carver said he dropped out of school to take care of his mother and grandmother, who was using an oxygen tank at the time. He struggled to find full-time work, and when their power was shut off, Carver said he became desperate.
“I got to a point where I didn’t know what to do. So, I went, and I did a stupid thing,” he said. “I went and robbed a gas station thinking that was the right thing to do. I just felt like that was the only choice that I had at the time.”
Where he was heading “wasn’t a good spot at all,” Carver said. It wasn’t until his probation officer suggested he look into a program called Café Momentum that his life began to turn around.
The Dallas-based restaurant employs and trains teens ages 15 to 19 who are involved in the juvenile justice system. Rokeisha Bryant, executive director of Café Momentum Nashville, said the goal is to equip at-risk youth with life skills, education and employment opportunities.
“Whether it’s truancy, young people that have been placed on probation, young people that are in a gang unit, all of that in between, we’re looking to serve,” she said. “We work closely with the young people and bridge those gaps for them to create their own path.”
When Carver stumbled upon the program in 2019, Café Momentum had just started eyeing Nashville for its expansion plans. The crew was in town to feed NFL draft picks and MVPs, and they wanted Carver to help out.
“I was just excited to get paid and be working,” Carver said. “So, I went and the first day I met the Café Momentum crew. I had never met these people before, they were all from Dallas, Texas, but they made me feel like I’d known them my whole life.”
In just three days, Carver said a whole new set of opportunities opened up for him as he learned how he could form a career in the restaurant industry. In what seemed like an act of fate, the owner of local bar and restaurant, Geist, showed up on the last day of the event.
“That was the owner of the restaurant that I work at to this day,” Carver said. “I’ve been there for four years. It’s crazy how much I’ve done over the past four years just by coming into contact with that restaurant… I just needed the opportunity provided to me.”
In the years since, Café Momentum has become more established in the Nashville community. The nonprofit organization launched an 8-week paid internship program in Jan. 2022, and Bryant said a permanent restaurant location could open as soon as next year.
“We are currently looking at a property in North Nashville. 37208 zip code, and that’s very intentional because that particular zip code has been greatly impacted by incarceration rates. We have the highest in the nation,” Bryant said, citing a 2018 Brookings Institution study.
The internship program is temporarily being ran out of a space at the Bodecker Foundation Collaborative Campus, with students showcasing their talents at restaurants across the city during pop-up events.
Some recent events have been held at Marsh House, Henrietta Red and Answer.
“Those are completely different environments, completely different cuisine,” Bryant said. “Our young people are working beside those chefs and taking their skills to the next level.”
Once moved into its newly renovated space in North Nashville, Bryant said Café Momentum will be able to operate at full capacity, with all the capabilities of its founding restaurant in Dallas.
The Nashville restaurant will feature “fresh, locally-sourced, sophisticated” American cuisine, all crafted and served by teens in a 12-month internship program. The location will also feature a community service center for justice-involved youth.
Interns earn $10 an hour while learning everything from sautéing to making pasta from scratch. They also practice serving, bussing and other aspects of operating a fine dining restaurant.
Along the way, case managers help the interns work through issues such as anger management, trauma recovery and abandonment. After they graduate, they receive a ServSafe food handlers’ certification, and many are placed into a job with Café Momentum partners.
“The goal is for them to thrive instead of survive. There is an ecosystem of support that we create around our young people,” Bryant said. “Everything from the workforce development skills, the culinary arts training, in addition to life skills, social skills and financial literacy.”
Alisha Moore, 15, was one of five teens to graduate from the most recent internship program in September. After getting into a fight at her school, Moore said she had to talk to a judge who suggested Café Momentum to her parents, Michael and Michelle Catlett.
“We wound up trying that out, and ever since I joined it, I’ve just really enjoyed it,” Moore said. “It’s helped me with my communication skills, my social skills. Just cooking with everybody, cooking with all the amazing chefs and serving people their food.”
Her progress has been noticeable to family and friends. Moore came into the program “very, very quiet,” and now she’s “blooming,” Bryant said.
While her dreams currently lie outside of the restaurant industry, Moore said the social skills she learned will help her work toward her goal of becoming a lawyer.
Like Moore, not all graduates plan to go into the restaurant industry. But, Bryant said the industry is a good foundation for several other professions as it helps teens develop many transferable skill sets, like customer service and math.
Just opening that door to other opportunities helps some break the cycle of incarceration, said Carver, who added that many times it can feel like there is no one “trying to help them” after they exit the juvenile justice system.
“Café Momentum made it where I could rely on myself instead of having to rely on anybody else,” he said. “That’s what really changed me completely. I tell people all the time just that one conversation not only saved my life, but it could have possibly saved others as well.”
While Moore still has several more years before she has to seriously consider her future career, her parents said they were “ecstatic” to see what she had accomplished upon graduation from the Café Momentum program.
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They hope her story, like Carver’s, serves as a reminder to parents to “never give up” on their children. Carver echoed their message by emphasizing how one conversation pointing him in the right direction changed his life.
“When we looked at the pictures and photos, we were just so ecstatic about her accomplishing something like that. It just made us smile,” Michael Catlett said. “A lot of times they can turn their life around. Just never give up on them.”
Café Momentum is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations. Those looking to support the program can do so simply by dinning at pop-up events or donating online at www.cafemomentum.org/donate/.
The next pop-up dinner will be held on Nov. 15 at Dinner with Friends, a fine-dining restaurant in Nashville’s West End. To find out more information or purchase tickets, visit this link.