This Life with Gracie: Wondering if Westside Works works? Here’s one answer

On the eve of The Falcons-Cardinals football game a few weeks ago, Antonia Thomas sat just outside the small kitchen of West Nest and told me how the stadium restaurant has changed her life.

Thomas, 43, moved with her four children from Americus eight years ago to Atlanta’s Westside just as talks of a new Falcons stadium began.

She is one of nearly 500 residents from some of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods — English Avenue, Vine City and Castleberry Hill — who have benefited from a $15 million investment from The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

Specifically, the money is being used for a job training center called Westside Works, a youth leadership program called American Explorers, new parks, a resident health worker program, and homes for Atlanta police officers willing to live in the area. The foundation’s investment has been matched by community partners including Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm.

Some from the surrounding neighborhoods have complained that Blank and the city dictated the terms of their efforts to help the Westside.

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Thomas understands the concern but says Westside Works not only provided her job training she couldn’t have paid for; after years of struggling to find her financial footing, it has caused her to dream again.

“I love every day I was given this opportunity,” she said. “Westside Works made me turn my life around.”

According to Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for the Blank Foundation, programs to uplift the surrounding community were put in place only after extensive public input, and it was determined that the number one priority was jobs.

“Given that, the first significant investment we made was setting up the workforce development center,” he said.

The center has been up and running since June 2014 and is focused on three things, Fernandez said: helping people get jobs, helping them keep a job, and creating a path to greater self-sufficiency and financial stability.

To date, more than 450 residents have been placed in living-wage jobs in construction, IT, health care, and culinary arts like Thomas, boasting a retention rate of just under 80 percent, and earning over $12 million in wages or about $13 an hour, nearly twice as much as the national minimum wage of $7.25.

Juliet Peters is the secret sauce in the Westside Works Culinary Academy, which gave Thomas a hand up.

Not only did she come up with the syllabus for the culinary program, she teaches the 6-week-long program.

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“Adding the culinary piece to Westside Works made sense because the hospitality industry is booming in Atlanta,” Peters said. “In addition, while the focus is job placement, at the end of the course, we want this to be the beginning of a career.

“This isn’t just about learning to cook. In fact, more than half of what we do has to do with developing the person, not the food. You don’t have to be the most talented chef but if you have the right attitude, show up on time and have the drive to learn more, can identify equipment, and most importantly know how to be safe in that environment, you can operate on any kitchen floor.”

Thomas found out about Westside Works after six years in low-wage jobs and struggling to make ends meet.

She’d pretty much learned her way around the kitchen watching her grandmother and aunts cook meals for their family. But Thomas said food safety never figured into food preparation.

“When I found out about the class, I jumped on it,” she said.

But it wasn’t always easy. Peters was tough.

“I will never forget when we were late for lunch one day, she wouldn’t let us back into the class,” Thomas said. “That made me realize, I either take it serious or get out. “

Thomas got serious and weeks later completed the program, earning her Serve Safe certification.

RELATED: Culinary career program a life changer

“Besides high school, it was the first thing I’d ever graduated from,” she said as a big smile marched across her face. “I’m where I want to be in life.”

And despite losing her only son to a homicide late last summer, Thomas said she is able to encourage her daughters to stay the course as well.

“I used to tell them all the time, ‘don’t start something and not finish’,” she said. “Now it’s not just words. I have something to point to because I did it myself.”

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