Photo: Los Angeles' Homegirl Cafe Gives Troubled Youth a Second Chance
Homegirl Cafe offers work to young people who live in violent surroundings, as in the case of Pamela Diaz, who was unable to find a job after leaving prison in February 2011.
Pamela grew up in a tough environment where she even got to the point of sharing with her own mother and sister the drugs she had been addicted to from the age of 15.
Though never a member of a street gang herself, she used to hang out with some of the dangerous delinquents she had known from childhood in the poor East Los Angeles neighborhood where she was born.
But in November 2011, Homegirl Cafe gave her a hand to get ahead, something no one in her life had ever done for her.
She took classes to learn to be a good mother, having had two children taken away by social services, and was given counseling to help her start having controlled visits to the daughter she gave birth to in jail and was also on the point of losing.
The founder of Homegirl Cafe is Mexican-born Pati Zarate, a community activist and chef who was the secretary of the Rev. Greg Boyle when the Jesuit priest founded Homeboy Industries as part of an effort to rehabilitate former gangmembers in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
While still working with Father Greg, Zarate developed a catering business out of her home in the Dolores Mission community.
She opened her first restaurant, El Zarape, in the neighborhood and, in accord with the philosophy behind Homeboy Industries, Chef Pati employed young women from troubled backgrounds.
In 2005 came the Homegirl Cafe, a restaurant that helps women like Pamela, who today has full custody of her little girl and is at last free of her drug addiction.
“I love this work and the chance they’ve given me. I have supervisors who know who I am, I don’t have to hide it, but I also get a lot of help from therapy and classes when I need them,” Diaz told Efe about her job as a Homegirl Cafe waitress.
Some 40 young women work full time in the restaurant and in total there are about 145 people who are trained at the cafe as well as in related companies like Homeboy Bakery and Homeboy Farmers Markets.
Diaz’s story is linked to that of Sara Gaitan, who is in charge of planting and harvesting some of the vegetables and herbs used at the cafe in one of the Homegirl Gardens.
“I was into the world of street gangs from the time I was 13 and was hit by a bullet in the chest at 18. At age 20 I went to jail for the first time and when I got out, there was no way I could find work. Homeboy Industries and Homegirl Cafe gave me the chance to change my life,” she told Efe.
Like many women who work in the cafe, Gaitan had no stable family structure, and after her father died she let herself be dragged into the hectic world of the streets.
“There’s no love like the love of the homeys, which isn’t like the love of a family but it’s almost better, but there comes a point when the line between love and big trouble is erased, and it’s only when we’re older that we realize the difference and then it’s often too late,” she said.
But everything has changed now for Gaitan, who for 18 months has been in charge of this organic vegetable garden, one of four with which Homegirl Cafe plans to produce 30 percent of all the vegetables and herbs it uses by the end of the year.
About 10,000 people approach Homeboy Industries annually looking for work, to have a tattoo removed or to attend training courses.