- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) | For Elin Ross, cooking came first.

It came before college and graduate school, before working in child welfare and the foster care system for the National Youth Advocate Program.

“My sister and I would practice making breakfast for my parents,” said Ms. Ross, 39. “In Girls Scouts, we’d learn to make spaghetti sauce over a fire, and I’d come home and want to do it again right away. I remember bugging my parents to get the Time Life cookbooks.”

She has combined a lifetime of cooking with a career in youth advocacy to create a unique program in downtown Frederick.

In the spring, she plans to open a cafe named Moxie, in connection with Cakes for Cause.

Cakes for Cause, a nonprofit, will provide job training and support to vulnerable local youth, 16 to 21 years old, growing out of the foster care system.

“The light bulb went off a long time ago,” Ms. Ross said. “I’ve watched nonprofits that did social enterprises, and I’ve had this dream for a long time. Kids out of the foster care system often don’t have the family support behind them. They don’t have those kind of connections that will help them succeed.”

Young people taking part in the program will receive experience in restaurant baking and cooking in the back of the house, and will be taught professional hosting and service skills in the front.

“In six months, they will leave with tangible skills and a resume with work experience that can help them earn a living wherever they go,” Ms. Ross said.

Through its curriculum and training, the Cakes for Cause six-month program is designed to help youth make thoughtful decisions while beginning to “start processing life,” she said.

“Often when we are young and impetuous, we make bad choices and then wonder why things happen to us,” Ms. Ross said. “We want them to look at the consequences of their decisions and internalize a sense of values, a sense of responsibility and work.”

By teaching young people about different aspects of the business, from recipes to food costs to punctuality and proper attire, “they will see the web of connections all around us,” she said. “On average, in 90 days, you can see changes in outcomes.”

She expects eight to 12 young people at a time to work in Cakes for Cause. She will rely on the Department of Social Services, the public housing authority, family, court and self-referrals for apprentices. They will earn an $8-an-hour stipend for up to 30 hours a week of training, curriculum study and work in the cafe.

The retail space is part of a North Market Street Frederick Housing Authority revitalization effort. It is expected to remain under construction until April.

This year, like last year, Cakes for Cause will also take part in the Baughman’s Lane farmers market on Saturdays and at the Middletown farmers market on Thursdays.

“It’s a nonprofit, but the architects went out of their way to design and develop a cool space,” said Ms. Ross. She plans to feature local artists’ work and may eventually hold acoustic-music performances.

Right now, the plan calls for the cafe to be open six days a week, from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., serving traditional continental breakfast fare, pastry and coffee in the morning; a bistro-style lunch with soups, salads and sandwiches; and dinner and desserts in the evening, maybe with tapas plates.

Ms. Ross said the message that she and her staff will be trying to convey is that life isn’t just “what happens to me.” It’s about community involvement, “viewing the world as bigger than yourself,” decision-making, and taking a chance on pursuing goals and one’s own destiny. Young people taking part in the program will be required to perform volunteer work.

“We’d love for kids when they leave the program to walk out with a job,” Ms. Ross said. “What’s most important is that they walk out with the feeling that they are empowered. Ready to start their lives.”

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