Serving up second chances
One chef's unique take on philanthropy makes a delicious difference.
- Fidelity Modern Life
- – 12/10/2021
- Philanthropy isn't just for the upper crust. Some of the most impactful charities start with an ordinary person deciding to make a difference.
- Baby steps count: Just one day of volunteer work can lead to a new, fulfilling life of helping others.
- The best philanthropy is like an investment—it pays dividends to the community.
Chad Houser was a stand-out Dallas chef and restaurant owner in 2008 when he volunteered to help residents of a local juvenile detention facility make ice cream for a contest. Houser knew nothing about the teenage boys except that they had been arrested, which made Houser think they'd have bad attitudes.
That assumption evaporated as soon as he met them. "All 8 of them looked me in the eye and called me Sir, and I felt the greatest sense of shame because I had stereotyped them," admits Houser. "But that shame led to humility, and led me to spend the next several hours not so much teaching them to make ice cream, but more importantly listening to them."
After one of the young men won the contest he told Houser, "I just love to make food and give it to people and put a smile on their face." Inspired by the interaction, Houser decided to do more.
It took 7 years of experiments and fundraising, but Houser now runs Café Momentum, an acclaimed nonprofit restaurant in downtown Dallas that is entirely staffed by released juvenile offenders in paid internships—and he's expanding the program to cities nationwide, starting with Nashville and Pittsburgh in 2022. The kids are not just staying out of trouble; they're going back to school and moving on to careers. This success demonstrates the impact that one ordinary citizen can have, and that philanthropy is about more than writing checks.
Food for thought
Houser grew up in a big family that celebrated Sunday dinner at his grandparents' home. "So food meant a lot more to me than just eating," he recalls. After 2 years in college studying English literature, he enrolled in culinary school. Upon graduation, he became a part owner of a Dallas restaurant. Within a year he had grown the business by 40% and was named the best up-and-coming chef in the city.
But looking back, he feels he benefited from immense privilege growing up in a white, middle-class household. "I had never done a single thing in my life to earn the resources and opportunities that I had," he says. Likewise, underserved youths have done nothing to warrant the instability they face, he adds. Through his work with those in the juvenile justice system, Houser learned that many poor offenders commit crimes to help their families survive.
Take Cameron, a Café Momentum intern whose stepfather died when he was 15, forcing his mother to work several jobs. Cameron quit school to stay home and care for his ailing grandmother. But his mom still wasn't earning enough to pay the bills; soon their car was repossessed, making it even harder to work. Cameron looked for a job, but employers said he had to be at least 16. The family was about to lose their electricity, which meant disconnecting his grandmother from a machine that helped her breathe. So the boy robbed a store and got arrested.
"I looked him right in the eye and said I would have done the same thing," Houser says.
Knives and fire
Early on, the idea of Café Momentum was met with resistance. "We were taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire," says Houser. "Someone asked, what was my plan when the kids start stabbing each other. I was told, 'These kids have never been to a nice restaurant; they can't cook your food.'"
So in 2011 he started small, organizing pop-up dinners staffed by incarcerated teens; the events became wildly popular. The following year he sold his restaurant interest and began planning and fundraising for Café Momentum, which opened in 2015.
Here's how it works: About 150 to 200 teens per year spend 12 months as paid interns learning every aspect of restaurant work, from the kitchen to the dining room. Café Momentum earns accolades for dishes like housemade charcuterie and fresh pasta, and many guests are unaware that it's operated by people from the juvenile justice system. Having a world-class chef at the helm helps, but so does how Houser motivates his team.
"We tell them they matter," says Houser, "that we believe in them and we support them. And that gesture alone is one of the most empowering and significant things."
A recipe for success
Every single intern at Café Momentum has gone on to graduate from high school. Many go on to conventional restaurant jobs, and 40% enroll in college—a remarkable outcome considering that more than half of interns had dropped out of high school before entering the program. (Café Momentum has opened its own school to more closely support its interns.) The emphasis on education is working: One young man from Café Momentum's inaugural year is about to graduate with a science degree from the University of Texas at Arlington, with plans for a career with NASA.
"They can and will rise to whatever level of expectation is set for them," says Houser. "We can actually change the trajectory of our city's most marginalized and at-risk youth."
Café Momentum's success led Houser to start a foundation dedicated to helping at-risk youth across the country. "At no point in my life did I think I was going to be launching a nonprofit organization, much less trying to scale it nationally," he says.
None of this would have happened without that first day making ice cream. That decision changed his life—and the lives of hundreds of kids. Now Houser urges more people to volunteer. "Don't overthink it; don't let yourself be the barrier to doing something important. If a goofball like me can do it, anybody can."
Next steps to consider
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