Bessie Ann Jackson was watching TV with her boyfriend when a commercial for a cruise line came on. When Jackson told her boyfriend that she dreamed of working as a prep cook on a cruise ship, he replied, "If you can dream it, you can do it." His words spurred Jackson into action. Eventually she found her way to the kitchen at the Stone Hearth Bistro on Bayers Road.
Stone Hearth is part of the Options Work Activity Program, a 30-week program trains people who might otherwise struggle to find employment. For Jackson, working at the Stone Hearth Bistro is the step between her home in Mulgrave Park and her dream of working as a prep cook on a cruise ship. Besides the restaurant, there's also the Stone Hearth Cafe for lighter fare and the Stone Hearth Bakery which makes kosher bread and baked goods. If people don't want to go into food services, the program also has classes on office skills, janitorial work and customer service.
"Most people want to work---no, I shouldn't say most people---all people want to work," says Dave Rideout, interim president and CEO of Metroworks, the organization behind the program. "But some people, because of their economic circumstances or their education, really have a hard time getting to where they want to be. We can get them the relevant experience, we can teach them what it means to be a good employee, how to find work and maintain work."
The bistro is tucked away in Halifax's west end, inside the CGI building at the Bayers Road Business Centre. After crossing the sea of cars in the parking lot, the restaurant is a welcome relief with its warm red walls and dark brown chairs. "Students come in and say 'I can't believe I'm going to work here. It looks so nice,'" Rideout says.
The kitchen is more stark and white but just as neat. On any given day the students might be learning how to make battered haddock, cookies or sandwiches to sell at the cafe. The instructors work alongside the students, walking them through the process.
"Making a difference and helping people at the same time is a really nice change from working in a regular restaurant," says Jenna Le Fort, the nutritional programming coordinator.
The program also focuses on people with physical and mental disabilities, people like Albert Webber. Webber works at the restaurant as a dishwasher.
"Basically I'm slow at learning things, at comprehending things," says Webber. "The employees here are willing to take the time to show you and teach you, and not all [managers] will."
"A lot of people down here have disabilities, including myself, and sometimes you get looked down on," says Karen Burbridge. The 57-year-old woman was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as an adult and now works at the Stone Hearth kiosk. Ask her if she likes her job and she'll tell you that she is "as happy as a flea on a dog." "I get up in the morning, I look forward to coming to work," says Burbridge. "I come to work to have a good day."
No matter what job people do here, whether they're an instructor or a student, manager or waiter, dishwasher or bartender, there's an undercurrent of pride when they talk about the bistro. "I would recommend the program to anybody, I really would," says Jackson. "The staff are really friendly, you can get a lot of education out of it, you can got a lot of experience."
To apply, students need a referral from a doctor, teacher, social worker or councillor. Application forms can be found at mymetroworks.ca.