Jump On Board for Success helps at-risk mothers in Akron pursue careers, gain self-sufficiency

By Tawney Beans, Akron Beacon Journal

JOBS Executive Director Jen Herrick, left, and chef Jen Tidwell, right, help students cook during class, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Akron, Ohio. Jeff Lange, Akron Beacon Journal

There are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Nearly a dozen young women bustle about NoHi Pop-Up’s test kitchen, a small space occupied on a Tuesday afternoon in November by House of Tacos. Bell peppers are being diced by some. Others assemble tacos, and a third group fills egg roll wrappers with a jerk chicken, cheese and vegetable medley before deep-frying them into soul rolls, one of the restaurant’s staples.

A new sound perseveres among all the commotion.

Click. Beep. Beep. Beep. Whirr.

It’s a noise that chefs hear in their nightmares – the mechanical drone of another order printing.

Front of house wants 15 tacos, just enough to finish off the jerk chicken, which needs to marinate overnight before more can be cooked off. After pushing out this final order, owner Chanell Cook shuts down the restaurant for the night.

None of the women return to their stations when Cook reopens the following week. The women weren’t on strike, or unhappy with their pay – in fact, they weren’t being paid at all.

They were students on a field trip with Jump On Board for Success (JOBS), a nonprofit program in Kenmore providing young and at-risk mothers with free job skills training and mentorship to help them achieve career-focused employment and self-sufficiency.

Chef Jen Tidwell instructs student JaQuae Blair on how to make tacos during on-site restaurant training in the kitchen at NoHi as part of Jump On Board for Success’ (JOBS) culinary program in Akron. Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal

It takes a village … plus a little more

JOBS has about 30 participants annually, most ages 18 to 24 and living below the poverty line in Summit County. The major obstacles facing these women are a lack of reliable transportation, adequate child care and the welfare system’s benefit cliff, according to JOBS Executive Director Jennifer Herrick.

The benefit cliff drop occurs when someone gets a better-paying job and then loses their government assistance for food, housing or health care before their income makes up for the loss. Often, this leaves them worse off than if they had remained at a lower-paying job or unemployed altogether.

It’s as if they are being punished for making progress, which is a major discouragement for self-improvement, said Herrick.

JOBS offers free child care while students are in class through its partnership with BrightStart Early Preschool and early childhood education program, along with gas cards and bus passes.

Program participants can choose from hands-on courses in culinary arts, early childhood education, business administration, entrepreneurialism and information technology. In these classes, women gain industry skills and credentials such as HTML coding, food preparation or CPR certification that provide an advantage when applying for jobs. Most classes meet weekly, and course lengths range from six to 18 weeks.

A student slices peppers during a cooking class run by Jump On Board for Success in Akron. Jeff Lange, Akron Beacon Journal

Soon after starting class, participants are matched with mentors, many of whom have also been through the program. Mentors provide encouragement and support while helping mentees with life skills such as time management, parenting, budgeting, setting goals and more. Often, the support system fostered between mentors, mentees and other program members creates a sort of found family – another crucial ingredient to their long-term success.

“JOBS is trying to create a village of support for those who don’t come from a family of support,” said Herrick.

A blessing in disguise

One Kenmore resident, Tiffany Gerke, 30, has transitioned from student to mentor to employee within the program since she discovered it in 2019.

In 2018, Gerke lived about an hour west of Akron in Austintown. That summer, her husband was away in rehab for a meth and heroin addiction. During his absence, with the help of her grandparents and in-laws, Tiffany and their two children moved in with her cousins-in-law, Sarah and Ben White of Akron.

At the time, Gerke didn’t know how to form healthy relationships or what a supportive community could look and feel like. That all changed after moving in with the Whites and joining JOBS, she said.

She first encountered Herrick at one of Kenmore’s First Friday events, where the director was selling goodies from that week’s culinary class. At the time, Gerke was a stay-at-home mom and didn’t know much about the culinary arts program. To her, it simply looked like a fun weekly activity where she could cook, receive culinary certificates and bring her kids along. During the first six weeks of the 18-week course, she was in the second trimester of her pregnancy with their third child, so she spent most classes feeling ill and taking breaks to sit. She finished the remaining 12 weeks of the course in spring of 2020 and graduated with a food safety and sanitation state certification. Gerke returned to the organization as a mentor in December 2021 and was recently hired part time as its mentor coordinator.

“It was a blessing that we came to Akron,” she explained. “I feel like literally this is where God wanted us to be… Some people, young moms especially, don’t have a lot of support. (In) this program we try to help them find that and help provide that for them, like love and support. I really appreciate that. I didn’t have any of that before I moved here, so it’s really helped me to build trust, to build bonds and relationships, to know what relationships should look like, like healthy relationships.”

In addition to her new title, Gerke will continue working with her latest mentee, Terah Coleman, 40, of Uniontown.

History of JOBS

JOBS was founded by Karen Lile and initially taught cosmetology to students in First Glance’s teen mom program in 2014. Two years later, Herrick, a former bakery owner with 28 years in the restaurant industry, joined and created the culinary course to teach the mothers how to cook in bulk while on a budget.

Jennifer Herrick, executive director of Jump On Board for Success (JOBS) center, instructs Nina Cameron, left, and Cassandra Collins during an on-site restaurant training in the kitchen at NoHi in Akron. Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal

In 2018, JOBS began collaborating with the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance on a $150,000 grant from nonprofit health coverage provider CareSource, which allowed the culinary program to expand from six weeks to 18 weeks. This arrangement also connected program participants directly to job openings at Kenmore Boulevard businesses such as SRINA Tea house & Café.

Around this time, the program moved to Park United Methodist Church, where all its courses, except for culinary arts, are now conducted. Because a kitchen like that of a restaurant is needed for the culinary course, those classes are held at Goss Memorial Church. By 2020, Herrick was the executive director and within two years the program’s four remaining courses were added. Jenuine Cuisines Culinary Services owner and chef Jen Tidwell took over teaching JOBS’ culinary students in 2022.

Chef Jen Tidwell talks to students during on-site restaurant training in the kitchen at NoHi as part of the Jump On Board for Success (JOBS) program’s culinary program in Akron. Karen Schiely, Akron Beacon Journal

The Educational Foundation of America awarded the organization a $37,500 grant to hire part-time employees and fund marketing and program expansion. One avenue of growth Herrick is considering is to start offering both day and night classes.

This year, the organization plans to host a two-hour real estate seminar to teach participants about the house-buying process. Also, JOBS’ culinary course will once again host 330’s Flavor Throw Down, a “Chopped” style culinary competition fundraiser where two local chefs prepare a mocktail, appetizer, entrée and dessert without knowing what ingredients they will be using until the day of the event. The program’s culinary arts students work as their sous chefs.

How to get involved

Chef Jen Tidwell, right, works with JOBS students during class. Jeff Lange, Akron Beacon Journal

All women who apply to the program are accepted. Applications are available on the JOBS website and Facebook page.

The organization accepts monetary and physical donations but sharing its social media posts and donating one’s time as a mentor are also appreciated. More information on how to donate and the process for becoming a mentor is on the JOBS website.

Contact Beacon Journal reporter Tawney Beans at tbeans@gannett.com and on Twitter @TawneyBeans.

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