Young volunteers learn about business at Tucker Church

Eight workers at the Kidz Cafe each Sunday master customer service

Good manners is good business. It starts with a smile at Tucker Missionary Baptist Church, where parishioners entering the Kidz Cafe any Sunday are greeted by young volunteers with an enthusiasm that rivals the voice of the pastor booming on the loudspeaker.

Friendliness is one of the main qualities required of the volunteers at the cafe, which was opened in 2009 to give children, teenagers and young adults at the church a chance to learn business skills in a work setting.

Volunteers at the Kidz Cafe. From left to right: Kenari Curry, 11; Melanie Martin, 18; Ilean Curry, 14. -- Photo by Marina Zarya

“The church has to be more than just a place to sit and get a message,” said Wayne Sistrunk, a parishioner who helped start the cafe. “You have to learn life skills and things that you can take out to the community.”

It may prove especially useful for young parishioners who may not be able to find jobs or job training elsewhere in the current economy. One quarter of Americans ages 16 to 19 were unemployed in March, the second worst March for teen employment since the start of the Bureau of Labor Statistics record in 1948. Teen unemployment rates have remained at unprecedented levels since the recession.

The young people at the church can learn similar skills that they would get at a part-time job — customer service, inventory, stock, time management, and more — by simply volunteering half an hour or so of their time at the Kidz Cafe each Sunday.

The cafe is situated in a small room just inside the church’s main entrance. The refreshments for sale — chips, cookies, mints, candy, soda, juice, coffee, and more — are placed on tables against the wall. Profits from sales, along with some donations from church members, keep the cafe running. Extra profits go toward other activities for children at the church, such as this year’s trip to Hersheypark, a theme park in Pennsylvania.

Serena Jackson, director of children and youth development at the church, oversees the program. She grew up on the South Side as a member of the church, and started working in a grocery store when she was just 16 years old. She learned quickly that the good manners she was raised to have are an asset in the business world, but are often lacking in retail employees.

“If you go to a store and you see somebody that looks like they don’t want to be there, then you know you don’t want this person helping you,” she said.

So she makes sure the eight volunteers at the cafe are both professional and welcoming to customers.

Melanie Martin, 18, was one of the first people to volunteer when the program started. Recounting her first day working at the cafe, she said, “I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know what to expect.”

Aisha Williams, 25, acts as a manager of the cafe and noticed this nervousness, but said it didn’t take long for the younger volunteers to start mastering customer service. “About a month after they were doing it every week, they were able to take charge and make it their own,” she said.

Taking charge is important in business, according to Eternity Berrios, store manager at Citi Trends clothing store on South Salina Street. She started at the store as a sales associate when it opened last October, but has already been promoted. “I’m good with customers, I knew what needed to be done, I took charge, I listened, and I learned,” she said.

She thinks training programs like the Kidz Cafe teach the skills that stores like Citi Trends look for in potential employees.

“Especially in retail, companies are looking for people who can basically make the consumer spend their money comfortably, and they want to know if they’re easy-going, happy-go-lucky, energetic, and willing to learn,” she said. “If you just come off the street and you want a job, you’ll notice that you don’t fit in this type of atmosphere.”

Working at the cafe is valuable for the volunteers even if they don’t want to get a job in retail.

Martin was able to put the experience on her application to Onondaga Community College, where she will
attend in the fall for nursing. She’s also volunteered at two nursing homes and works at McDonald’s.

“I’m just doing it for the good of it,” she said. “I love helping people and making people happy.”

Serena Jackson, director of children and youth development at Tucker Missionary Baptist Church, oversees the Kidz Cafe. -- Photo by Marina Zarya

Drawing on her experience at nursing homes, she particularly likes serving the older members of the church.

“When I help them it just puts a smile on their face, and then they would kiss me on my cheek,” she said. “So it just really made me happy, and they were happy.”

Volunteer Ilean Curry, 14, wants to go to school for engineering. Her brother Kenari, 11, wants to design sneakers.

Williams works as a library clerk during the week and has already been able to make use of what she’s learned.

“Being in charge, it helps with management skills, time management, and gets me used to getting up early,” she laughed. “I’ve grown, met new people, going into church there’s so many people that go in and out. It’s good to be that first face that they see, with a nice smile.”