Grande Ambitions: A Barista's Story

Photo of Serena who learned employment skills at YouthCare

To her customers at Starbucks, Serena is the bubbly, friendly barista who always remembers their usual order. Her coworkers marvel at how many regulars she knows. Every once in a while, she’ll coax one of them into trying, say, a caramel macchiato – just for fun. To the undecided, she speaks knowledgeably about the different drink options and enthusiastically recommends the white chocolate mocha as her own favorite. 

Serena wasn’t always outgoing, and she credits YouthCare’s Barista Training and Education Program (BTEP, or “Barista”) with helping her find her voice. Nervous and cautious at the beginning of our 8-week program (a partnership with Farestart), she was determined to overcome it: “I tried to speak out more. When I first started, I didn’t speak a lot. I talk to people a lot more now because of Barista.”

Homelessness can radically undermine the self-confidence and trust in others that are so central to effective communication. Serena isn’t the first young person who has had to dig deep and overcome fears instilled through hard experience. She won’t be the last.

That’s why, in addition to learning food handling, retail skills, and the coffee arts, learning how to interact with customers is a big part of Barista at YouthCare. It’s also why Starbucks store managers and other employees volunteer their time to conduct mock interviews with every Barista cohort – providing invaluable feedback and information and helping us build these young men and women’s sense of achievement and empowerment.

When she first walked into our James W. Ray Orion Center last August, Serena was exhausted and stressed. She and her mother had bounced among relative’s houses and transitional housing programs for years, since Serena was in middle school. Jill at the front desk immediately hooked her up with a case manager, and Serena recalls being floored at that first meeting. “I told her about school and she said, I can help with that here! I told her about housing, and she’s like, I can help you with that here!”

Now, less than a year later, Serena is in Passages, YouthCare’s transitional living program for 18-21 year olds, but is looking forward to getting her own place. After deciding that high school classrooms are too distracting, she’s enrolling in GED classes at Shoreline Community College. She looks forward to starting a medical assistant program soon. Thanks to a well-remembered 9th-grade unit on Latin and Greek roots, she already has a knack for the terminology.  Meanwhile, she’s settled in nicely at Starbucks. 

Serena is quick to thank YouthCare for getting her where she is today: confidently following a path to stability and achievement. “YouthCare really, really changed my life. I don’t know where I’d be right now. I wouldn’t have any job history, an appropriate resume, none of that. They showed me what I needed to do, and they helped me do it professionally.”

Heather, the house coordinator at Passages, credits Serena instead. As she says, “There isn’t a person in the world she can’t make a connection with.” We agree: all Serena needed was the right support and guidance – from people like Heather; from Damian, her Barista trainer; from so many others at YouthCare and in the community. Serena supplied the positive energy, the hard work, and the determination to begin shaping her own life. It’s a tall order, but we’ve no doubt that Serena will continue to serve up successes.