Interview: Recipe for success – coaching young people who have just left prison

Café manager describes transformation of ex-offender trainees

Eki Mfon, Crisis cafe Shoreditch Spitalfields ex-offenders homeless

Eki Mfon (R) the cafe manager jokes with one of the staff. Source: Victoria Seabrook

Morning light streams through the enormous windows of Crisis café in Shoreditch. Ivy tumbles out of hanging baskets on the bare brick pillars and lanterns hang from the beams. With its bright but rustic, décor, the café looks right at home among the bountiful coffee shops and eateries of its environs.

But Crisis serves up something a little different than just artisan coffee and Portuguese custard tarts – delicious though it was. It runs training programmes for the homeless and young people who have been in prison.

The four month traineeships teach either front-of-house or kitchen skills. Each programme is tailored to suit individual needs and mentors also advise on housing and jobs. Essentially, they help get people’s lives back on track.

Ekikere Mfon, or Eki for short, is the cafe manager. He started working with Crisis when he finished university, but now, several years on, says he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “I love my job. I love the guys, I love working here.”

I catch him in a quiet moment when he sits down to his breakfast between the morning and lunchtime rush. The menu is inviting, including options like home stewed fruit with granola and brioche or scrambled eggs with chorizo and roast cherry tomatoes. But Eki opts for two slices of marmite toast and a cup of milk.

His breakfast is not the only humble thing about him. He explains how much he enjoys working with the young trainees who have been in trouble with the law:

“People who are here – it’s just because of circumstance. We need to see beyond the human mistake.”

At the Crisis café each trainee is assigned a job coach, who monitors the progress and makes sure they are getting the most out of their scheme. They also help with employability skills and help manage finances, apply for benefits and find housing. The trainees aren’t paid but their transport and food are covered and the schemes are a springboard into employability – especially for those who have never had a job before.

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According to Eki, a lot of the trainees come to the café to stay out of trouble and to keep off the streets: “It helps them because when they come out of prison they don’t know what to do, where to go, how to be. They can learn that here.”

One of the most important parts of the scheme is building confidence, he says. “We tell them: “You are here. Make the most of it while you can, make mistakes while you can. The café is here for you to make mistakes, so you don’t need to when you get a job.’”

Eki’s answers are short, composed and calm. Then I ask if he sees a big change in the ex-offenders during the programme. He drops his piece of toast back on the plate and a smile spreads uncontrollably across his face.

“That’s one of the reasons why I love my job so much. It’s the joy, it’s so fulfilling, watching the progression a person has made, from start to finish.

“Every single thing they have done. We celebrate every single aspect of people’s lives: “you’ve made it one step! Learning a new skill, speaking to customers, going for an interview, we celebrate that too, because that takes guts.”

He says they invite some of the guys to come back in after they’ve left, to share their testimonies with the other young boys so they can see how well it works. Some of them are managers now, or they run their own café, some have moved on, some have settled down with a family.

Damion Mitchell is one of the boys that came through the Crisis cafe after leaving prison. He said when he first started the scheme he was terrified because he felt like he had nothing to offer: “I didn’t feel like I had any skill to add. But Eki helped me to see that I do.”

“Eki is not just a great manager but a great human being, inside and out. He has time for everyone and yet he demands nothing from you – apart from what you have within you. The things that makes him cross the most is when someone doesn’t let their potential show.”

Eki has discovered a great deal about himself while working at the café too. “They say ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover.’ But we’re human, everyone does that. But now I know that might be the best book I’ve ever read, the content might be very important.

“Once you get to know what each one has gone through you think ‘Who am I to judge?'”

When Eki has finished eating, one of the staff comes to clear the empty plate. He turns and walks back to the kitchen, revealing the slogan on his staff t-shirt.

It reads: “recipe for success”.

Interested in what happens to exoffenders? Check out our probation timeline.

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