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Central Coast citizens given a second chance at life

General Manager Eric Blanco and Sister Thersea at The Bridge Cafe's ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo by The Bridge Cafe

The Bridge Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo is not only serving up breakfast, lunch, and baked goods, they’re also giving individuals a new opportunity at finding a livlihood.

In conjunction with Cuesta College’s culinary program, Restorative Partners (a local nonprofit) is helping those who were previously incarcerated. Upon re-entering society, many of these individuals are not given the necessary resources to reintegrate themselves.

Upon release, these individuals are then given the opportunity to enroll in the culinary program at Cuesta to learn the ins and outs of the food industry. Once they complete their courses, and receive their Culinary Foundation Certificate, they are given the opportunity to practice their new skills at The Bridge Cafe.

Sister Theresa Harpin has been a linchpin in Restorative Partners and many other programs in the area. She has spent much of her life working in social and restorative justice. From setting up a bus route to connect children with their incarcerated fathers, to starting Restorative Partners in 2011, Harpin has been a catalyst for changes in countless individuals.

By opening up their culinary department to Restorative Partners, Cuesta has been instrumental in jumpstarting this program. Behind the scenes, Cherie More, M.S, has led the charge.

Not only is Moore the Division Chair of the addiction studies program and human services and nutrition, but she also has been the main link between the California Men’s Colony, and various state programs with the Cuesta culinary department.

According to Moore, one of the many challenges that arose in the process of building this program was obtaining the necessary resources required to run an efficient and adequate culinary program. The current facilities on campus were not up to par, nor was the equipment that of which they would see in a real world environment.

Currently, much of the instruction is done at The Kitchen Terminal SLO, near the airport. Not only is this venue state of the art, but it also has a lecture hall directly adjacent to the kitchen for students to use.

While this setup works well, Moore is hoping for a similar space to be built on campus.

“And if we could have our own [facility] it doesn’t have to be a huge state of the art lab on campus,” Moore said. “I think we could accommodate a lot more class times and a lot more students.”

A common theme among those involved in The Bridge Cafe and Restorative Partners is the desire to help others. These people are putting their own personal gain and economic profit aside, for the benefit of others.

General Manager Eric Blanco shared these same sentiments. Rather than open a cafe purely to turn a profit, Blanco decided instead to take the non-profit route. Being a Cuesta and Cal Poly alumni himself, Blanco was already well integrated into the community.

“I would say the most rewarding part is the people really effectively changing their lives and providing them employment, somewhere where they feel safe,” Blanco said.

Another common theme among those involved in this project is their appreciation of the individual. Whereas many people often see those previously involved in the criminal justice system as a number or statistic, they see each individual as a chance to give someone a second chance at life.

One of the most critical aspects of this effort is the location of the cafe. The Bridge operates on Higuera Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. Being so close to the courthouse, many of the judges and lawyers stop by the cafe for lunch. Compounding the proximity to the courthouse, and the employees past transgressions, there is often a reunion between the two parties.

Many times there has been a lawyer or judge recognizing the individual on the other side of the counter. These interactions not only surprise the incoming party, but sometimes shows them that these people are making the msot of a second chance.

The cafe has also received multiple grants, including from the city of San Luis Obispo and Cuesta College, to help offset some of the costs. Blanco was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from Must! Charities in Paso Robles.

This money will be invested into their catering department, in hopes of increasing the number of events they are able to provide for, but also to increase their capabilities to serve larger events. Blanco and the rest of the catering department hosted a “Bridging the Gap” event at the Fremont Theater, serving upwards of 300 guests.

“Bridging the Gap” showcased restorative justice in action through an inspirational, educational, and engaging program of speakers and arts, presented by Restorative Partners. The official Restorative Partners website noted that speakers included “individuals with decades of lived incarceration experience, survivors of violent crime, restorative justice academics and practitioners, and more.”

To learn more about Restorative Partners and The Bridge Cafe, visit their websites at https://restorativepartners.org and https://www.thebridgecafe.org.