Teenage Dream

NEWS1Lightfoot Industries leads at-risk teens on the search for their ‘soul craft’
A soul craft, according to Carmen Kubas, is the thing that “lights your fire” and “gets you out of bed.” It’s the thing you love to do.

For Kubas, each day brings new challenges as she pursues her own soul craft as founder and CEO of Lightfoot Industries—an original blend of restaurant development, sustainable food and life skills education for at-risk teens.

Her work includes the guidance and mentorship of Lightfoot’s 10 high school students as they search for their respective soul crafts. The teens, labeled “at-risk” by educators, have already slipped through the cracks of public education. Most come from Delta High, an independent study charter school linked to Cabrillo College.

But at Lightfoot, the only thing that’s “at risk” is whether the chutney is burning or if someone’s arms might give out during Camel Pose, a particularly difficult yoga position.

Lightfoot’s educational philosophy is inspired by apprenticeship-based learning, which Kubas says is used to help teens manage the transition into adulthood. The teens are assisted by a network of socially minded local business owners and mentors, brought together by Kubas to help guide and inspire her students. The goal is to “usher them into adulthood by being around innovative and trustworthy adults,” she says. It’s an old-fashioned idea made revolutionary by the failure of the public school system to meet the needs of all its students.

The Lightfoot curriculum is radically different from anything the teens have seen before. They learn the marketing side of Facebook, twitter and the blogosphere in social media class, and take Bikram yoga for wellness. In the kitchens at Serendipity Syrups, they cook up sauces, syrups and chutneys in product development class, and learn real-world business skills in sustainable professional development.

Under Kubas’ guidance, the Lightfoot teens develop portfolios and build their resumes. The hope is that, by graduation, each will have an arsenal of tools for success. And, if their soul craft search goes well, they may even know which direction they are headed.

“It’s a lot more real-life oriented,” explains 17-year-old Lightfoot student Kyle Mitchell. “I think school should really be based out in the world. Lightfoot really puts you in that real world situation and teaches you about what you really need to know to get by and provide for yourself.”

Once a week, the Lightfoot teens put on a “Supper Club” at Backstage Lounge, a restaurant located at the intersection of Seabright and Soquel avenues. With chefs Mike Martinez and Jake Gandolfo running the kitchen, the Lightfoot teens fill out the rest of the staff. Under Kubas’ management, the teens wait tables, serve and clear the food, and practice their workplace skills.

“Supper Clubs were so much fun. We went in there and took over like it was our own restaurant,” says Grace Weech, 16. “Everyone did such a great job. The main thing it taught me was things are going to come up and not go as planned so you just have to roll with it and adjust.”

The Lightfoot youth have also handled large catering events with a level of poise far beyond their years.

“The kids do a phenomenal job,” says Kubas. “You wouldn’t believe how great they do. It really speaks to the philosophy of education behind this, where you give kids a little bit of structure, you empower them, and then you trust them to figure it out.”

For these youth, this experience has proved valuable in ways that school has never been.

“When they began to work in the restaurant, they got feedback from the real world,” says Mary Gaukel Forster, principal at Delta High School. “It wasn’t just from a teacher, they got feedback from the cooks and they could see if people were happy or not. It’s called linked learning. With their team, if they don’t show up, they can see the world they let down. What are the skills in a job? Show up, do your best … they experience that. We can teach a lot of skills here [at Delta], talk about career preparation and job skills, but Lightfoot imbedded it with the real world experience.”

Forster says the teens’ Lightfoot education has, in turn, improved their performance in school.

“Our students showed an increased level of commitment with their school studies,” she says. “Just as a person they grew, seeing themselves as mature, capable individuals.”

At about a year and half old, Lightfoot Industries has already begun to accomplish what Kubas had hoped for:  providing an educational program that can do what public school has failed to for these teens.

“The program is not a culinary program,” says Kubas. “We use it to expose [them] to sustainable food policy and healthy food farm-to-table, but it’s a controlled environment to teach work skills. We are just trying to teach them entry level work skills; communication, problem solving, teamwork.”

In addition to vocational and “real world” skills, Kubas hopes that Lightfoot students will leave with the stress management abilities necessary for succeeding in college or a job.

“If they don’t have good skill sets to manage stress,” says Kubas, “it’s really easy to flip flop back into an at-risk behavior, be that self deprecation of any type, emotional, drugs, whatever, or you just don’t see yourself reflected in this college-going atmosphere or this professional atmosphere, and when you go home, you stay.”

This is why wellness, also known as stress management, is an important part of the Lightfoot curriculum. For many of the Lightfoot students, Bikram yoga isn’t something they would be doing on their own. “I didn’t think it would be that intense, but it’s pretty intense,” admits Tyrell Aguilar, 18. “Afterwards you feel pretty good.”

But the program as it stands now is only a “modified pilot” version of what Kubas hopes it will become. Kubas spent much of the ’90s working with homeless and at-risk youth at Ti Couz, a San Francisco restaurant at the helm of the sustainable and socially responsible restaurant movement. Building on this experience, she founded Lightfoot Industries in 2009. Her dream was threefold: to create a four-year supplemental program for teens who have failed to succeed in traditional high schools, to own a farm and also a restaurant where the teens could build real-life skills. The farm and restaurant would be for-profit, while the educational program was nonprofit. The teens would be paid for their work and ultimately would graduate with a Lightfoot fund of $30,000 reserved for their higher education.

Kubas says she has seen too many promising youth make it through an alternative education program and enroll in college, only to drop out. She hopes that Lightfoot students who feel they have earned a college fund will be more likely to use it.

But Kubas’ full Lightfoot Industries dream has yet to be realized. Current participants do not leave with a college fund, but they do get paid for their restaurant work and receive a stipend at the end of the program.

Instead of her own farm, Kubas has partnered with UC Santa Cruz’s Food What?! youth empowerment program, which teaches sustainable agriculture and health to high school students. Instead of her own restaurant, she’s partnered with David Jackman, the owner of Backstage Lounge and downtown’s Chocolate, to give the teens a chance to develop their work skills. Kubas hopes that this year’s successful pilot program will encourage investors to invest and allow her to secure educational grant money.

While she dreams of an optimally funded Lightfoot Industries, Kubas continues to run Lightfoot according to her original philosophy: find your soul craft.

“[The teens] are starting to identify what their soul craft is,” says Kubas. “We are starting to look at what that looks like in the world and through the lens of sustainability. What is it that really lights their fire? What do they really wanna do? What’s gonna get them out of bed for the rest of their lives? This is really about them reaching in deep and finding what they love.”

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