The Youth Employment Academy, a program of Denver Housing Authority, serves about 200 youth each year. Program enrollment is open year-round. To learn more about YEA, visit youthemploymentacademy.org. Links to each program — culinary arts, customer service and retail management and the creative industries — are accessible from the YEA website.
From a young age, Rudy Jimenez-Diaz knew he had an interest of going into the culinary field.
His stepdad was an excellent cook, and was always trying new techniques and encouraging his family to try new things. Jimenez-Diaz also enjoyed working alongside his stepdad with the family-owned taco truck.
But Jimenez-Diaz was not at all interested in pursuing a higher education.
“I was interested in getting to work,” the west Denver resident said. “I was tired of school.”
Then he learned of a program called the Youth Employment Academy.
“They definitely got my career going,” said Jimenez-Diaz, who is now 27. “I’ve learned all the best and the worst of a kitchen. I’m happy for all the opportunities.”
Jimenez-Diaz started with YEA right out of high school. He completed the program’s internship, then continued his culinary education at Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver. Currently, Jimenez-Diaz is a chef at the Osage Café & Mercado. In this role, he comes up with recipes, helped start the wholesale kitchen for the mercado and teaches YEA culinary classes in Spanish alongside his colleague Carolina Olivas.
YEA teaches “people to be successful in the workforce,” said Annie Hancock, the executive director of YEA and the director of resident and community connections for the Denver Housing Authority. “It’s allowing them a safe space to make mistakes and create the solutions.”
YEA is a nonprofit program of the Denver Housing Authority. In the early 2000s, DHA received a grant to fund case managers to help underserved youth with barriers they may be facing — homelessness, food insecurity and social-emotional wellness, for example. This grant led the way for the formation of YEA, which organized so that after the grant funding, the program could be sustainable and supported year-round.
Starting out with the culinary arts in 2007, YEA has since expanded and now offers hands-on training for youth age 14-24 in the three main fields: culinary arts, customer service and retail management and the creative industries. It does this through its Art Street, 1079 Osage St.; Decatur Fresh, a grocery market at 995 N. Decatur St.; and the Osage Café & Mercado, 1015 Osage St.
YEA “offers real-life experience and training for the workforce,” said Lori Laurita, the operations manager of social enterprises for DHA. “It’s about learning what their (the youths) strengths are, and what their interests are, and growing from there.”
The main goal of YEA is to help the youth obtain their goals — whether it be employment, such receiving hands-on training in a career; or education, such as earning a high school diploma or GED, or pursuing post-secondary education.
YEA “provides paths for youth to take outside of the traditional pathway,” Hancock said. “It gives them an opportunity to explore as much as they can.”
Employers in the community also have the opportunity to get involved, particularly with the networking component and exposing youth to all the job opportunities there are out there, Hancock said. For example, putting on an artist meet-and-greet or hosting the youth for a tour of a commercial kitchen.
“We’re able to pull out any interest they may have,” Laurita said of the youth. “We serve every individual uniquely, (and) we work with them through all their barriers.”
Youth in the program are connected to mentors, and they also work together on projects. Hancock pointed to the recent Edible Arts project. With this project, the youth learned the importance of growing your own food. The youth used elements of art to highlight the plants growing in the Mariposa community garden in Denver’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. They “brightened it up,” Hancock said, with edible art — kale, dill, mint and more. The plants then were used by the culinary students at the Osage Café, and the neighborhood’s residents also have access to the garden and the plants growing there, Hancock said.
In such, while YEA is a youth-serving program, it also works to provide larger support for the neighborhoods in-and-near the social enterprises’ locations, particularly with food access, Hancock said.
“We’re at the table from the beginning, talking with the community and responding,” she said. “We’ll continue to be responsive to what the neighborhood asks for.”
Laurita said that one of the reasons YEA is successful is because everybody has different experiences. They’re not all positive experiences, but those are also life-lessons learned.
“We don’t have to solve the bigger picture (immediately), but we can solve the problem that’s right in front of us,” Laurita said.
The youth learn to become part of the solution. They learn to help others and be a part of the community, she added.
“I’m proud of every individual who comes through our program,” Laurita said. “I consider everybody a success. And it’s because of these success stories that I do this.”
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