Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Diner Serves Up Job-Training Experimental Baltimore Program Lets Juvenile Offenders Discover the Rewards of Hard Work

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Diner Serves Up Job-Training Experimental Baltimore Program Lets Juvenile Offenders Discover the Rewards of Hard Work

Article excerpt

THE Hollywood Diner, a vintage 1950s restaurant often used as a movie set, is dishing up more than Americana these days. It's teaching the American way: working hard for a living.

Downtown businessmen, secretaries, construction workers, and tourists may crowd into the peach-colored vinyl booths every day for a cheap and decent meal. But the staff cooking and serving the food are inner-city youths - not long out of jail or off the streets - getting an education as a court-ordered condition of their probation.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic, shot through with social skill-building, take on a new meaning here, says Bill Staffa, a psychologist who manages the city-owned diner as a vocational education program.

"For a 17-year-old preoccupied with his own survival and who has maybe only a third-grade reading level," Mr. Staffa says, surviving the six-month training program is not easy.

In the no-nonsense tone he uses with the youths, Staffa rattles off what sounds like the day's lesson for an urban boot camp:

Use your alarm clock: don't wait for grandma to wake you up for your 6:30 a.m. shift. Greet customers clearly and don't mumble. Smile. Memorize the menu: Hamburgers are $2.25; chocolate shakes $1.60. Write your orders so the customer and the cook can read them. Stay cool when the customers at table 13 in the corner are rude. Don't forget the spoon when you serve the coffee. Smile some more.

For a time, the diner was operated as vocational training for Baltimore high school students. But, say customers who remember, service was slow, the place didn't look as nice, and food didn't taste as good. The operation also lost $100,000 to $200,000 a year.

Today, the irony is that under the staff of juvenile offenders whose crimes range from chronic truancy to multiple felonies, the Hollywood Diner's reputation for food and good service is as sparkling as its stainless-steel trim. IBM and other businesses have scheduled parties here, and as the youths' catering reputation grows, says Staffa, the current $35,000 annual operating deficit is likely to turn to profits.

Moreover, after 14 months in operation for juvenile offenders, no participant has had another criminal charge, Staffa says.

The program was started with $20,000 seed money from the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development, a private nonprofit agency that contracts with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services to run the program. …

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