NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The waffle irons are crucial pieces of
equipment at Ma Momma’s House of Cornbread, Chicken &
Waffles. Two of the restaurant’s three titular specialties —
the cornbread and the waffles — are cooked in the irons, and most
of the restaurant’s menu features one or the other, either as a
main item or a side to fried chicken.
“People come here for our waffles,” said owner Nicole
Mackie. “And one of Eddie’s functions is he takes waffles out
of the machines,”
Eddie is Eddie Thomas, a 20 year-old Ma Momma’s employee.
Mackie wore a smile as she watched Thomas move from the
restaurant’s open kitchen to the dining room, delivering
flatware, water and plates of those steaming waffles.
“I like them,” Thomas said, bashfully, when asked about the
cornbread waffles, which two visitors from Florida seated
nearby had just proclaimed worth the trip to New Orleans.
Thomas is one of six students from Opportunities Academy, which
caters to students with intellectual and developmental
disabilities, who have worked part-time at Ma Momma’s in the past
year. They are part of a small but growing O.A. student presence in
the local hospitality workforce — one that is only likely to grow
larger after O.A. opens in its new facility next fall, in the
current home of Kipp Central City Primary.
O.A. is a post-secondary school, serving students between 17 and
22, run by the charter school network Collegiate Academies. One of
the school’s goals is to teach students life skills necessary to
live on their own, including the mastery of conventional tasks some
might take for granted, such as filling out job applications,
setting an alarm clock and taking public transportation.
Many students refine these skills working in rOAst, the
on-campus coffee shop run by Academy students. On a visit last year
to the Opportunities Academy at G.W. Carver Campus in New Orleans
East, several students worked in the kitchen to fill school staff
members’ orders for avocado toast. Others delivered orders and
practiced making coffee.
A year later, many of these students are honing those same
skills in paying hospitality industry jobs, participating in a
virtuous cycle that furthers their development while filling a need
in an employee-strapped industry.
“You have to be able to thrive in life outside of your
family,” said Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency
New Orleans, which employs four Opportunities Academy students in
its culinary department, as well as at the hotel’s Starbucks.
“If our program didn’t exist, Eddie would probably be
sitting at home” said James Lukens, the Academy’s executive
director, referring to Thomas.
Lukens, working through a plate of Ma Momma’s red beans, said
that O.A. serves students who would otherwise fall through the
cracks of New Orleans’ education system. The recent, exponential
growth of its student body is evidence of demand: This year’s 50
students is more than twice last year’s enrollment of 21. Next
fall, when Opportunities Academy opens in its new location, which
has 35 classrooms, Lukens expects the enrollment to be between 70
and 80 students.
“We want to create more diverse and inclusive environments,”
Lukens said.”To do that, we have to ensure people with
disabilities qualify for jobs.”
The students who move from O.A. into the workforce are not
typical employees, at least not at first. O.A. provides
professional job coaches who help the students adjust to their
surroundings and meet their responsibilities.
Mackie said that while training O.A. students takes more time at
first, the job coach ensures a more gentle learning curve by
breaking down tasks into smaller steps. In relatively short order,
Mackie said, her O.A. employees “are coming in here ready to rock
She adds that the time invested in students is returned “many
“We enjoy helping others,” Mackie said, referring to her
family, several of whom are her business partners. “We grew up
extremely poor, and if it wasn’t for people helping us, we
wouldn’t be where we are today.”
And employers get more out of the arrangements than warm
feelings. Smith, the Hyatt Regency general manager, expects
students to become valuable, long term company employees.
“What we find is that certain associates can work here and
then can go work at” other Hyatt properties, he said.
Ephraim Frey, a 19-year-old O.A. student with autism, started
working at the Hyatt’s Starbucks as part of an eight-week
program. He arrived on the job with experience, having worked at
the on-campus coffee shop, and excelled enough that Starbucks asked
him to stay on after the program was complete.
“It’s a pretty good job,” Frey said, “if you’re
interested in getting into the workforce.”
He takes the bus to the Hyatt from his home in the Lower Ninth
Ward, where he’s lived all his life, save for a period his family
evacuated to Texas for
Hurricane Katrina. He juggles his job responsibilities with his
studies, including computer programming.
“We’ve already learned how to make websites,” Frey
Frey searched for ways to express how his Starbucks job has
helped shape his thoughts about his future: “Stimulation,
that’s the word I’m looking for!”
“What I really want to do is more physical, where I can put my
hands into something,” he continued. Frey cataloged his tasks —
filling orders for coffee and tea, keeping the lobby clean — as
his eyes moved around the shop and out into the hallways of the
massive hotel, which buzzes with activity.
“There seems to be a lot going on here,” Frey said. “It
seems to be a place where I could really start something.”
Source: FS – All-Hotels-Blogs
Training Students With Disabilities for Hospitality Work