Nearly one hundred years ago, Mercy Home opened a trade school where the boys learned to work at bricklaying, carpentry, painting, candle making, shoe repair, type-setting, and more. Such skills taught the young men to become self-reliant and marketable as they entered the workforce.
Today, our career preparation programs focus more on internships and college education. However, our tradition of teaching independence via on-the-job training continues with our young people who work on campus.
Luis has been working in our kitchen as a dishwasher for 10 months, almost as long as he’s lived at Mercy Home. From the moment he arrived, Luis prioritized earning money to help out his family, and quickly found himself working breakfast and lunch shifts. Mastering the technical side of his job came easy. But it was the social side where he found the most value.
“This job really helped with my communication skills,” he said. “Before I moved into Mercy Home, I was a really shy person and didn’t like to speak to anyone. Now that I’m working in the kitchen, I get to greet everyone while I’m washing dishes.”
When he’s not picking up extra hours in the kitchen, Luis also volunteers with the facilities department on maintenance projects, like installing statues and planting trees. He enjoys these opportunities to learn handyman skills. “They taught me how to use a saw and take measurements,” he said.
Thanks to his career resource coordinator, Luis experienced a professional hiring process similar to those he’ll face with future employers. “They gave me a chance to do an interview for the kitchen job, so that helped a lot,” he said. “My coordinator was always teaching me how to speak properly, how to be more punctual for interviews, and how to dress up.”
Despite a rigorous work schedule, Luis is also a business major at Harold Washington College, with his sights set on transferring to a four-year college like Northeastern Illinois University. Now that he’s found the confidence to speak up and advocate for himself, Luis is considering a new path that one day may help others like him.
“I want to switch my major to social work or psychology,” he said.
About the time Luis clocks in for his breakfast shift, another young man is setting up the Alpha & Omega Coffee Shop, now a morning fixture for Mercy Home employees at our campus in the West Loop. After completing three successful job shadows and a successful interview, Abe was officially hired as Mercy Home’s resident barista.
Running the stand is more than just pouring coffee. Making special orders, icing down creamers, keeping track of money, making change, and grinding beans for the cafeteria are all spokes in the larger wheel of Abe’s ultimate goal.
“It helps me be organized. It builds character and personality. I’ve learned patience,” he said. “It’s important to keep building relationships – especially for the younger kids. When they see a youth that actually works here at Mercy Home, they look up to that person as a role model.”
While focusing on the more concrete aspects of the job, Abe seizes the opportunity to engage in dialogue and network with peers and coworkers. “People come by and talk to me, so I get to listen to people and relate to them,” he said. “Having a conversation can have an impact on people, with words.”
Abe is particularly fascinated with words and vocabulary. During lulls at the coffee shop, he uses his downtime wisely to study the dictionary and thesaurus. “I’ll read a few words in the A’s, mark my place, then read a few in the B’s, and so on through the alphabet,” he said.
Moving forward, Abe’s thirst for language will serve him well as he plans to secure an internship this summer and start college at Harold Washington this fall. Like Luis, Abe eventually wants to transfer to a four-year college.
“I’m looking at DePaul, because they have a law school, or the Moody Bible Institute, because I have some friends there and it feels homey,” he said. “At Moody I’d major in communications. Plus, I like that faith is at the center of their topics.”
Meanwhile, Abe is growing so comfortable in his barista role, he’s considering applying to coffee shops outside of Mercy Home. Whatever path he chooses, first and foremost, is his responsibility as a role model to the younger kids at Mercy Home.
“I feel like they look at me and think, ‘If he can do it, then I can do it.’ ”