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Can a cup of coffee help change someone’s life? For Michael Cunningham, 31, the answer is a resounding, “yes.”

As one of the first employees of Racine County’s new job training program, the Training Grounds Coffee Shop, Cunningham is building work skills and experience.

“It helps individuals like me make something better of themselves,” said Cunningham. “It lets me know that I’m not on my own, and there are people who want to help.”

A Cup Of Hope

michale-rfdcpicHoused on the first floor of the Dennis Kornwolf Racine County Service Center, 1717 N. Taylor Ave., the Training Grounds is a full-service coffee shop that offers a wide variety of coffee and snacks and the chance for participants to build critical job skills and experience. The program’s goal is to help people gain skills to help them find work in the private sector.

“The mission is to help people that need work skills and history to acquire them, and then move to the private sector,” said Workforce Solutions Manager Mark Mundl. “It gives us a chance to observe and coach, and work on the soft-skills that are so critical to work.”

Adding a swirl of cinnamon and asking about skim milk are small things. But attention to detail, questions about customers’ preferences and making suggestions are the kind of transferable job skills that could help Michael find employment a few months down the line.

“Soft skills are key,” said Mundl. “team work, problem-solving and communication – technology evolves but soft skills are interchangeable.”

How The Training Grounds Works

img_1923Cunningham applied to work at the Training Grounds through Windows to Work. The program helps prepare men slated to be released from the Racine Correctional Institution and Sturtevant Transitional Facility to prepare to re-enter the community by providing education, job-readiness and goal-setting assistance.

Interviewing to work in the coffee shop gave Cunningham the chance to be coached and practice answers to tough questions. Along with job search skills, Windows to Work tries to eliminate what Mundl called “stinking thinking” with positive suggestions for action to help men start out and stay on the right path when they return to the community.

Cunningham said the combination of support and work is helping him keep money in his pocket, meet new people and stay on the right track.

“The people are the best part of the job,” he said. “They show that they truly care and understand. From here, there are better things ahead.”

Supported By Partners

The Training Grounds also partners with Lakeside Curative Services, Racine County Opportunity Center youth program and Gateway Technical College. The goal of all partnerships is to help people with barriers to employment gain work skills and experience.

Along with Cunningham, the Training Grounds’ staff includes a young woman working to earn her GED and manager Alyssa Novak. Novak was brought up around coffee and earned her stripes working at the family business, The Grind Café, 7300 Washington Avenue.

Mundl said Grind owner, Steve Novak was instrumental in getting the Training Grounds off the ground with contributions that ranged from help with layout and design of the store to sourcing equipment and products and setting up the price structure.

“This would not have been possible without Steve,” said Mundl.

Novak has 15 years of experience in the specialty coffee business. He said that expertise alongside a youth spent working in food-service and construction taught him the value of hard work and underscored the fact that there’s a place for everyone in the workforce.

“The main thing is trying to get young people an opportunity and some skills,” he said. “Serving people gives workers sales skills, soft skills, teaches self-control and how to handle people and themselves.”

Primary Focus: Working For Others

The goal with the coffee shop is to earn enough money to break even. Its real success will be measured in the lives it changes by helping people gain job skills and experience. The program is already gaining attention. In November, Mundl said it will be presented to the  Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment as a promising practice.

The Training Grounds is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., but will be shifting hours soon to 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that visitors and employees can grab a coffee after lunch. Prices range from $2 for a small coffee to $5.50 for a large blended drink. Training Grounds is located on the first floor of the north side of the Kornwolf building in the Workforce Solutions space.