Teen Cuisine's Rare Role is Well Done

Isabelle De Pommereau
March 1, 1998


Until recently, Danny Almiero harbored a strong hatred against police officer Gene Kowalski. The Miami-Dade County cop had caught him stealing cars and helped put him behind bars. Today, the troubled youth and the juvenile police officer are buddies. The boy can even tell you that the cop likes his hamburger well-done.

Danny Almiero and Gene Kowalski were brought together by one of the most innovative programs, the work of a visionary juvenile judge who, tired of waiting for the system to work, is designing programs of his own.

From a tiny cantina trailer in the lobby of the two-story Dade County Juvenile Center, the 14-year-old makes a few bucks once a week flipping hamburgers for cops, judges, lawyers and social workers.

When teens are finished doing time, they serve meals. They get the chance to cook once a week only, part of a special high school behind the courthouse/juvenile facility called TROY, or Teaching and Rehabilitating Our Youths. For the 60 teens (aged from 14 to 18) who attend each day, it’s a chance to be transitioned back into society.

It’s the first time Danny’s been in school since he had left the sixth grade. Part of what’s kept him at TROY — while he had deserted most schools before that — he says, has to do with Teen Cuisine. Sure, he earns $32 for the day’s work. But more, he says, cooking for people he used to consider his enemies, like cops, judges, even probation officers, is helping him build a new attitude toward life. “He becomes your friend rather than your enemy,” the shy, blond-haired boy says of Officer Kowalski.

Not many experts will disagree that one of the most complex questions facing the world of corrections today has to do with this: how do you reconnect troubled kids with their schools, their communities, so they don’t end up clogging the adult system as career criminals?

It’s a question Juvenile Judge Tom Petersen, who is retiring in March, has relentlessly tried to tackle. To him, the answer lies in making kids attend school. “The relation between school failure and delinquency is just so strong,” he says.

The judge set up the food business right after becoming a judge. He started the school — built around the cafeteria — after receiving a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. (TROY was one of 11 grants given to innovative alternatives to incarceration programs for youth offenders. The grant was renewed for three years.)
Two years ago, when the school became too much for the judge to handle, Petersen handed it over to the Brown School Corporation, a Houston, Texas-based national provider of juvenile justice and child welfare programs. Today, the company is managing the fiscal operation of the school.

Most of the youths have committed violent crimes, including armed robberies and car jackings. Another group includes troubled youths referred through their schools, mostly because of behavioral problems.

In the busy lobby of the Dade County Justice Center, the food business is going full speed on a recent day. The chef is a boyish looking 16-year-old. As he hands a security guard a dish of chicken wings over the pick-up counter of the trailer, a smile creeps on his face. It’d been a long time since Latron Steadman had smiled. He says that when he was in jail, all he was thinking of was smashing cars, breaking in stores, stealing clothes. Now, he says he’s got a different game plan. The cafeteria may or may not have the ingredients for turning the lives of troubled youths round. Of course, it’s too early to know if Latron, who is paid $30 a day, is going to make it back into society, but his smile is an encouraging sign.

“When he first got here, he was angry, his rage was just below the surface,” says Jennifer Schuster, who runs TROY Academy. “It’s amazing this change in him . . . he’s beginning to connect with the people around him and suddenly he’s coming out smiling.” TROY’s budget this year includes:

  • $126,600 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That covers the salary of a graduate from Johnson and Wales University in North Miami, one of America’s best known culinary institutes, who supervises the team of five youths working in the cafeteria every day.
  • Another grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency that covers TROY’s after-care services.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s local Training and Employment Council pays for a 12-computer lab.

But costs associated with the daily operation of Teen Cuisine, including food, beverages, and fuel are covered by the money students make each day selling breakfasts and lunches.

de Pommereau, Isabelle. "Teen Cuisine’s Rare Role is Well Done." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 57.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.