Blue Sky Bakery & Cafe, a charming coffee shop in the North Center neighborhood, has a serious mission tucked in among the tempting scones and cupcakes on display.
Lisa Thompson started the nonprofit bakery eight years ago to help at-risk young people aged 16 to 24, often homeless or recently incarcerated, find their way to the beginnings of a productive life.
“The bakery’s name comes from the idea of limitless potential,” Thompson says.
Through job skills + training, @Blue_Sky_Bakery helps homeless young adults reach “limitless potential”
Thompson, who began her career as a sexual assault survivor advocate in the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney, engages about five young people at a time in the bakery’s 12-week training program. Referred by roughly 20 different shelters and agencies, trainees learn from Thompson as well as a full-time baker, a part-time barista and a part-time program coordinator.
The young people who come to Blue Sky learn to work in a professional kitchen, beginning with washing dishes and scaling ingredients. They also meet with social workers, to help reinforce personal and workplace skills like teamwork and professionalism. When they leave, they have not only credentials but also the work experience so critical in the job marketplace.
Lisa Thompson launched Blue Sky Bakery eight years ago to help young adults experiencing challenges like homelessness, or unemployment after incarceration. The nonprofit’s name represents it mission to “provide options and bright futures—the idea of limitless potential.”
About half of the trainees complete the course at the bakery, which is offered year-round. With ongoing support from the program, three-quarters of those find jobs, often but not always in the food industry. Thompson measures their success through a broader lens.
“Showing up every day, that’s success,” she says. “I know they’re safe if they’re at the bakery and they’re doing something they can be proud of.”
Thompson would like to expand into more services—there’s been talk of a roving coffee cart stocked with Blue Sky’s scrumptious pastries—which could add jobs for the program’s participants.
Thompson tries to meet the young people she works with where she finds them. One young homeless man confided to her his dream: to work in a warehouse. Thompson says, “I told him, ‘We’re going to make that happen. Now that’s my dream, too.’”
Blue Sky’s pastries are made from scratch by a professional baker, with support from the participants in its 12-week intensive training program. About half the trainees complete the course, and three-quarters of those graduates parlay their newfound skills and experience into paying jobs.
Thompson grew up in Wheaton, with a single mother who worked as a secretary for a publishing company. There wasn’t much money; but Thompson says her mother, who died five years ago, loved and supported her two daughters. At the end of every day, she served them a home-cooked meal: something “simple and fresh and delicious.”
On Saturday mornings, there were blueberry muffins from scratch; on other days, pecan rolls, pancakes, pies. Thompson’s first job in the kitchen was turning on the oven.
“When you cook for someone you love, or for strangers, it makes you feel really good.”
Service was part of Thompson’s life growing up as well. “If you had two nickels to rub together, you gave one to someone else,” she recalls.
Thanksgiving was usually spent serving up meals at a soup kitchen in Chicago, sitting down to eat when the work was done. Only years later did it dawn on Thompson that the family volunteer activity enabled her mom to provide a turkey dinner for her own daughters.
Thompson invests herself in the lives of the young men and women her program serves. “Showing up every day, that’s success,” she says. “I know they’re safe if they’re at the bakery and they’re doing something they can be proud of.”
Now Thompson, who quit her full-time job a year after she started Blue Sky, runs the kitchen and the restaurant. And writes grants, and keeps the books, and handles what she calls the “romantic” parts of the job as well.
“I decide what art we hang up. I pick flowers and arrange them on the table to reflect my style. This is a difficult job, but it makes me very happy.”