Through hands-on education, bakery and café helps women make new strides

Irene relaxes after a day of work at the New Leaf Bakery and Café in Spokane, Washington. (Courtesy of Transitions)

In November 2014, a pregnant Tracy Nguyen moved from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Spokane, Washington, with her son and boyfriend, leaving everything familiar behind. Seven months later, the 26-year-old took her two children and walked out of her abusive relationship without glancing back.

With a new single-mother status, Nguyen was homeless with no family around. For help, she turned to the Salvation Army, where she learned of Transitions, a ministry co-sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Sisters of Providence, Sisters of the Holy Names, and the Spokane Dominicans.

Through the program's Transitional Learning Center, a housing program that caters to homeless mothers for up to 24 months, Nguyen had a home again and a supportive community.

"It was pretty scary for a while," Nguyen said.

Transitions is an umbrella for other services, including New Leaf Bakery and Café, where women can develop the skills they need to gain employment and become independent. The café and bakery programs typically run for a six-month period, but the café also runs some short-term training options in coffee-making and customer service skills.

After a referral, Nguyen began her training at the café in November. Her tasks include running the cash register and making coffee.

"Coffee has to be at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time or else you can't use it. I didn't know that," Nguyen said, laughing.

New Leaf Bakery and Café sits in the administrative building of Catholic Charities on Fifth Avenue in Spokane. Though New Leaf doesn't partner with Catholic Charities, the nonprofit offers the café subsidized rent for the space.

Tracy Nguyen makes a coffee drink for customers of New Leaf. (Courtesy of Transitions)

For each woman running around with a pot of coffee or taking a customer's order, the café offers more than just a job.

"It has a really transformational effect, I think partly because it gives people a safe space to learn," said Jamie Borgan, New Leaf's program director. "A lot of the folks we're working with have come out of situations where they didn't have faith in themselves."

The bakery, which also runs a catering business, opened in 2008. It wasn't until 2011 that the business moved into a separate permanent commercial kitchen that allows it to reach up to 40 women each year. Many of the baked goods are sold at the café and to other stores in the community. The women who come in learn basic cooking and baking skills, making bread, cookies, cinnamon rolls, and a lot more. But the program also teaches other important skills.

"Another thing that is really big is accountability," said Kerry Picard, the chef instructor. "That's a big step for a lot of these women, to have something to look forward to."

Borgan said it's important that the public is happy with New Leaf's products, but it's also necessary to remember the New Leaf participants need a quality learning environment. The balance between running a good business and providing a good environment is one New Leaf struggles to keep at the forefront.

This balance has proven to be helpful to many women who walk into the center. Borgan recalled one woman who struggled with some cognitive disabilities after being badly injured as a child. She finished with the bakery in August.

"It could be overwhelming for her at times, but she finished, and she secured a job at a local grocery store," Borgan said.

About 60 percent of the women who participate in the training program go on to a job or education after completion.

As part of its Transitional Living Center program, New Leaf offers the women emotional support. The New Leaf support group meets every Friday, and the women can also attend some counseling sessions. This proved to be helpful to Nguyen.

"I really relied on my boyfriend, but after he left, it showed me I could stand on my own two feet," she said.

Left, Faith displays a batch of cupcakes she made at New Leaf Bakery and Café in Spokane, Washington. Right, Deb checks the consistency of her frosting at New Leaf Bakery and Café. (Courtesy of Transitions)

With the Christmas season in full swing, holiday orders swarm the bakery.

"It's pretty crazy," Picard said.

The orders include everyday deliveries and the additional holiday cookie orders that extend their work hours. But for Picard, it only adds to the joy of the season.

"The biggest thing I get a huge delight out of is when they make a batch of baked goods and they're like, 'Wow, I did that myself.'"

Beyond the flood of holiday orders, New Leaf is also receiving some community support. A local culinary foundation gifted all the program's participants with presents and free meals.

The same joy is reaching Nguyen, but in a different way. It's her first Christmas as a single mom, and it hits hard.

"I haven't seen my family," she said. "I just had a baby in January, and my mom still hasn't met him."

The new community is what keeps her going, as it offers support that is leading her to take even greater strides. With the help of New Leaf, Nguyen applied and was accepted to the culinary program at Spokane Community College.

"I start in January and I'm really excited for it," she said.

[Onize Ohikere graduated in 2015 from Minnesota State University, Moorhead with degrees in mass communications and documentary journalism.]