Teaching skills and transforming lives

ConnCat is helping students with employment barriers gain the skills and confidence they need to succeed.

ConnCat culinary students serve up breakfast and lunch in Science Park. Photo credit: Matthew Higbee

Culinary students beamed with pride as they served up empanadas, pulled pork sliders, cookies, and other tasty treats to an appreciative crowd of state and local officials at the grand opening of ConnCat's Orchid Café. The event was the culmination of more than two years of planning and developing the state–of–the–art culinary institute at ConnCat, a career education center with a mission of transforming the lives of individuals with barriers to employment.

"This place is going to help a lot of people, not just in terms of job training and employment, but also to be a beacon for the city," says ConnCat Executive Director Erik Clemons. "For our students, it's not just about getting people jobs. It's about how they feel about themselves and believing there are possibilities beyond the conditions that they see every day."

The 55-seat Orchid Café, located at Science Park, is open for breakfast and lunch. It is one of three lines of business that will expose ConnCat's culinary students to a variety of foodservice jobs. In addition to selling food on-site, the institute will host events and run a catering operation.

All twenty of the students in the culinary institute's first cohort have been hired by restaurants around the city, Clemons says. Several have plans to open their own food businesses.

ConnCat was launched in 2012 with seed money from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The center is modeled on Pittsburgh's Manchester Bidwell Corporation – an internationally recognized arts and education center founded by the MacArthur Fellow, Bill Strickland.

In addition to its culinary classes, ConnCat provides training in medical billing and coding and phlebotomy. Prior to launching, each program was market-tested with feasibility studies in order to make sure that students would receive training in fields that were hiring.

All of ConnCat's students have had challenges finding or keeping jobs that have opportunities to rise out of poverty, and one-third of them have a history of incarceration.

"Although we are working with people who are living in poverty, this is not a poverty program," says Clemons. "The design of the space speaks to the idea of transformation and speaks to the idea that people here are valued. Everything we do is for the purpose of giving people dignity."

To learn more about ConnCat, visit its profile on giveGreater.org.

Did you know?

83% of adults in ConnCat's Career training programs who were unemployed prior to enrolling in the program are now working.

91% of those who were working when they entered the program have achieved a significant increase in hourly wages.

This story is part of the Inspiration Monday story series produced by The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.