At a time when so many young job-seekers are caught in the no-experience-no-job dilemma, one on-the-job training program is flourishing in the shadow of the gleaming office buildings, hotels and restaurants of downtown Stamford.
Addressing the needs of 16-24 years olds, who need both a paycheck and a transition from high school to skilled jobs, college or vocational studies, , a social services non-profit housed in the old Rogers School on Lockwood Ave., is home to the Trafigura Work & Learn Business Center initiative.
The Work & Learn model features "business centers" like a bike repair shop, a small engine repair shop, a culinary arts program, a woodshop, and an offsite hair and nail salon.
Bryant Abbott, formerly an English teacher at Bridgeport's Harding High School, heads the culinary arts business center. Abbott, who has made a mark at Domus in a short time, overseeing the fundraising for and installation of a new greenhouse, is a juggler. On any given morning his tasks include finding and placing trainees in jobs, arranging the sale of greenhouse produce to The Whelk and Le Farm in Westport, and teaching culinary arts.
"Do you see yourself as front of the house or back of the house," Bryant asked culinary arts trainee, Hykia Dillard. "You know I'm going to place you in a job."
The Right Volunteers Add Value: Enter Frank Schipani
Abbott looks forward to cooking instructor Frank Schipani's visits to the Domus kitchen. "The kids respond to him. He puts them at ease by keeping the conversation going and never talks down."
Schipani, a consultant who led sales training for many years at Hugo Boss USA, hits the deck running, introducing himself to the eight trainees as he dons his kitchen apron and slaps a towel over his shoulder.
Sharing a "peasant recipe" passed down from "Poppa," Schipani exudes a rare combination of star quality and modesty. He sprinkles his cooking lesson with stories of his youth, recalling how his musical group – a mix of three black and three white performers – competed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1956.
"We didn't win, but they didn't throw tomatoes at us either," he recalls. Without missing a beat, returns to the present. "What is the one single food you can entirely do without in your life?" he asks. The guesses include oil and salt. "Sugar!" says Schipani. "My son is a health nut. He tells me you can live without sugar. It's true."
The kitchen fills with laughter as Schipani jumps from serious precautions about cleaning surfaces "to avoid disease like salmonella," to a series of impersonations that include an uncanny Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. The girls were rapt.
Next quiz. Schipani asks the girls to identify the long leafy sprig he holds in the air. "Mint?" asked one girl. "No, this is basil," said Schipani, "But I have a terrific recipe for cold beet and mint salad! And mint is easy to grow."
While sharing his onion-chopping technique, Schipani says, "I take my knives to a place to be sharpened twice a year. The tool you see chefs use on TV, that looks like a long metal rod, it's's like fine sandpaper. It just smooths out the nicks. Number one, you have got to have very sharp knifes in the kitchen."
Cutting thick slices of perschutto and explaining how its preparation differs from that of ham, Schipani offers samples. For most of the girls it is their first taste.
Frankie, you got any thyme?
Reminiscing about the days he worked on the docks unloading ships as a teen himself, Schipani recounts the instance he asked an older worker, a cook, to teach him how to make tomato sauce. "The guy asked me, 'Do you have any thyme,' and I said, 'I got all the time in the world.' From that day on all the guys on the docks would shout, 'Hey Frankie, you got any thyme?'"
When the meal of chicken in sauce, salad and bread was complete Schipani, Abbott and the girls filled their plates and moved down the hall to the café to eat, though the trainees often prepare meals for groups hosted by Domus. Recently the trainees catered a meal for 20 family advocates.
Despite two hours on their feet, the girls enthusiasm never flagged. "My favorite part is working in the greenhouse," said Jesenia Lopez. "For me, it's about the cooking," said Hykia Dillard. "We've made flank steak and colossal shrimp."
"I'm sticking with this because it's fun," said En-Deja Whyte, a rising junior who will transfer from Stamford Academy to in the fall for her junior year. "In the fall I'll get another job here."
At the close of the twice-weekly two-month job session, trainees can sign up for another business center. The choices are enticing and include the option of working off-site at Salon Roshawn a hair and nail salon. "Me, I'm trying to get seven other girls to join me to do the bike workshop," said Whyte.
According to Mitch DePino, who oversees the Work & Learn business centers, the model has been honed over 17 years. "It's all about the culture. We limit groups to eight. We could have more, but it's not about the numbers. We're creating a culture."
Imitation is the highest form of flattery
Work & Learn at Domus, funded in large part by the Trafigura Foundation, the philanthropic division of the global commodities trader, and the Tow Family Foundation, is a hit with the participants. So much so that according to DePino, he and his staff share their ideas with other Work & Learn initiatives across the state, each operating under the umbrella of a local non-profit.
To inquire about volunteer opportunities at Domus, contact Julia Wade at 203.324.4277 ext. 24.