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Solid Grounds

A barista school gets teens off the streets and behind the counter.

By Martin Patail January 19, 2010 Published in the February 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

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Student Mike Marlow pulls a shot at P:ear’s new barista school.

Image: Kurt Wolfgang

FOR MOST OF US, coffee is simply a tool for paddle-shocking our brains every morning, but for a few of Portland’s 1,000 or so homeless youth, it’s a way to jump-start a career. In October, P:ear, a local youth mentoring program, partnered with Seattle-based roasters Caffé Vita to open a barista school that fast-tracks Portland’s least fortunate in one of the city’s most competitive industries.

The arrangement is simple, explains Sarah Dougher, a veteran P:ear staffer: Caffé Vita donates the coffee, equipment, and instruction while P:ear provides the space. All the students have to do is roll up their sleeves. There’s local precedent for the partnership, too. Urban Opportunities employs at-risk teens to sell Voodoo Doughnut’s sugary treats, and the downtown Ben & Jerry’s is staffed by teens from New Avenues for Youth. P:ear’s eight-week-long program begins with a survey of coffees from around the world. Then students learn the intricacies of brewing coffees and espressos in the school’s tricked-out coffee cart. The term culminates in a trial-by-steam ordeal in which students spend half a day brewing free coffee for the Old Town neighborhood. After graduation, alumni intern at local hot spots like Broder Cafe on SE Clinton Street to garner real-world experience and work references.

“Being a barista should not be these kids’ last job,” Dougher says. “But it can be their first.

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