Community

El Cajon Project gives local youth chance to explore

Leslie Nguyen
Courtesy of El Cajon Project
Leslie Nguyen learns culinary skills through chef Betty Ewing’s El Cajon Project.

Betty Ewing has been trying to make a difference in the lives of youth since 1993, when she founded the El Cajon Project. The nonprofit endeavor provides youth at risk of not graduating from high school with a newfound sense of direction, responsibility and self-sufficiency through an immersive culinary program.

“(In 1993), I had a restaurant and had spoken to the local high school’s vice principal,” Ewing said. “I asked, ‘Do you have students that might not graduate?’ He replied, ‘Absolutely.’”

Ewing arranged for eight at-risk students to participate in the El Cajon Project at what used to be the Blue Sky Cafe in Mountain View.

“I used (the students) in my kitchen for prep, setup and facilitating things,” she said. “They were learning skills I could hire them for. They were engaged and out of trouble. Being in a kitchen full of food and action triggers good things.”

Ewing runs a tight ship because she wants to see her students triumph in all walks of life. To stay enrolled in her culinary program, students “must be successful in school,” she said, maintaining at least a C average with no behavioral or truancy problems.

“One strike, you’re out,” she added.

For participating in the El Cajon Project, students receive school credit that counts toward graduation. Since observing the success it brought her initial eight students, Ewing has kept the program alive and evolving.

Behind the scenes

El Cajon participants are between the ages of 13 and 19, when “some youth are prone to being in a gang, running away from home or having fights with the family. By 19, they could have an infraction or a felony,” Ewing said.

She enrolls approximately 40 students in El Cajon annually. The student pool draws from the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School, Palo Alto Unified, Fremont Union High School and San Francisco Unified school districts.

For the duration of the program, students are welcomed into the kitchens of participating restaurants, where they practice and hone the tools of the trade for 10 hours a week. Restaurants include Alexander’s Steakhouse, Alexander’s Patisserie and The Sea.

Ewing is judicious when considering which students to place in which restaurants.

“I assess the students when I’m speaking with them,” she said. “If I have a student who has autism or is on the spectrum, it’s important that I place them somewhere nurturing. It’s about grooming the right student at the right place.”

Ewing checks in on her students at their various locations.

“Betty visited once a week,” said Stephanie Pollano, a former student and Los Altos resident who trained at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey. “I liked that she would give me a hug and ask how I’m doing.”

Pollano went on to graduate from culinary school and is employed with Bon Appétit Management Co., working as a pastry cook at Google Inc.

“If it weren’t for Betty and the El Cajon Project, I don’t know what I’d be doing now,” Pollano said. “(In the future), I want to open up my own bakery, maybe locally.”

A labor of love

Janie Pollano, Stephanie’s mother, added, “Betty really gives (kids) an opportunity. She just wants these kids to succeed. She does all of this out of the goodness of her heart. She’s amazing.”

The El Cajon Project is supported by personal grants and grants from corporations. Ewing makes sure that it is of no cost to students, and provides them with uniforms and books. For her, the reward is to see her students thrive.

“At the beginning, kids are signing up for something they’re unsure of. Maybe they think they’ve already made bad choices and this could be another one,” Ewing said. “I tell them that if they put in more, they’ll get more (out of it). I’m very proud of them. At the end of the day, I just want to make sure the kids are successful and happy.”

Some of Ewing’s former students have been so inspired by El Cajon that they are now her partners in the initiative.

“They love El Cajon and what it did for them,” she said. “They become leaders for my next class.”

Although she is happy now, Ewing’s life wasn’t always easy. Her background reminds her to constantly strive to do good for today’s youth.

“When you yourself grow up in a precarious situation, you try to reach out and do something better,” she said. “We need to take care of our youth. I want to give them something that makes them feel valuable: another family, something they can invest in and feel loved. In a kitchen, you find a lot of love.”

For more information on the El Cajon Project, visit elcajonproject.org.

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