Thursday, March 13, 2008

Baking up opportunities for youths

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Elin Ross, a Frederick resident for eight years, will open Cakes for Cause, a nonprofit social enterprise bakery⁄bistro, in January in downtown Frederick. The bakery will provide job training for young people in foster care or who live in public housing.
After five years of planning and dreaming, Elin Ross has all the ingredients in place for a new Frederick bakery that will produce more than sweet treats.

Ross, 37, has created ‘‘Cakes for Cause,” a nonprofit social enterprise bakery⁄bistro that will provide job training for young people who live in public housing and have ‘‘aged out” of the foster care system. The restaurant setting will offer eight months of vocational and job readiness training for young people ages 16 to 21.

In addition to learning how a restaurant operates, she said, young people will also learn skills such as punctuality, proper dress and interview protocol, to help secure a job in the growing hospitality field.

‘‘We are a culture that eats out a lot and we are giving these youth the opportunity to take advantage of that,” Ross said. ‘‘If they want a job in Frederick, great, but if they want to ... head out to California, they have eight months of training and experience to get a job, and one that will pay them well.”

Proceeds from the bakery will help sustain it for the future, Ross hopes, so the constant drive for donations and grants by nonprofits eventually becomes nonexistent.

For the last eight years, Ross has worked for the nonprofit organization Nonviolence International in Washington, D.C. There, she learned the ins and outs of setting up a social enterprise when her employer set up a printing press to benefit young people in foster care.

‘‘For me, it is a sense of responsibility ... as I feel we, as a society, have failed these kids,” she said. ‘‘There is a sense of wanting to create a program that doesn’t sustain levels of poverty, but instead gives young people options and finds ways to lift them up.”

That passion to help others was then enhanced by another great love that Ross has: baking.

For nearly a decade, Ross has been baking wedding cakes and other items as a hobby. In 2004, she attended L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, not to advance her cooking skills, but rather her marketing skills. She also worked at a local inn and with a restaurant group to learn more about the industry.

The culinary certification is in addition to a bachelor’s from Oklahoma State University in liberal studies and a master’s in applied anthropology from The American University in D.C. Ross is a native of Indiana, but ‘‘moved around a lot,” she said, due to her father’s work in telecommunications.

In December 2007, her dream got a big break when the Frederick Housing Authority approached her about space in its new North Market Community Center, part of the HOPE VI federal housing ownership initiative. The building, slated to open in January 2009 at the corner of North Market and 7th streets, will house several nonprofit groups that help the community, according to E. Kevin Lollar, the housing authority’s director of development.

‘‘Elin and I met and talked about what is a great idea,” Lollar said. ‘‘We are 100 percent behind her.”

Lollar said that the housing authority will provide space for nonprofit; tenants will be responsible for paying their share of utilities only. The housing authority is also helping to outfit the kitchen area and drum up more donations from the community.

‘‘The partnership with the housing authority was perfect timing,” Ross said. ‘‘They are helping with the two biggest obstacles: a space in downtown Frederick and equipment. These are huge, huge outlays.”

While the two sides are working toward a five-year memorandum of understanding, Ross has been busy putting the finishing touches on creating the nonprofit organization that will run the bakery⁄bistro. The 30-member group has a board of directors and advisory board of interested residents and professionals. The Community Foundation of Frederick County is its fiscal agent to collect donations.

‘‘... We want people to see a dynamic nonprofit organization driven by our mission ... and become a vital part of the Frederick community,” Ross said.

Once the business opens, Ross ensures that ‘‘every dollar goes back into the program.”

‘‘When someone comes in to get a dessert at the restaurant ... they are contributing to the community, to the revitalization of the North Market Street area, and to give these kids more options,” she said.

Ross and her husband of 17 years, Mike Olson, moved to Frederick eight years ago from the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. Both became actively involved in their Neighborhood Advisory Council, helping to organize events such as an annual block party to raise money for local efforts.

Some of the proceeds from last summer’s party went to another of Ross’ ongoing projects — beautifying the Laboring Sons Memorial Grounds between Fifth and Sixth streets.

She is actively working to organize a ‘‘Friends” group to raise money for park renovations, from new landscaping to signage noting the history of the land as a former graveyard for the city’s black residents.

Truby LaGarde, a 25-year resident of Third Street, first met Ross through their Neighborhood Advisory Council. LaGarde said one of the things Ross first discussed with her was the beginnings of ‘‘Cakes for Cause.” LaGarde is now a member of the group’s advisory committee.

‘‘This is something so sorely needed in the North End of our community,” she said. ‘‘... I’m really impressed with Elin’s energy, her depth of knowledge of nonprofits, and how this can really work to the benefit of the entire Frederick community.”