University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service graduate Jordan Butler is working as a project leader with Refill Café, a restaurant that doubles as a workforce training program for young adults in Butler’s hometown of Jackson, Miss.
The café, set to open in 2019, will be located at the former Koinonia Coffee House on the Jackson State University Parkway.
“The idea is that when young adults come and apply, they are provided with wraparound services,” Butler said. “We’ll have social workers, mental health providers, and an employment coordinator on staff who really work with each of these individuals to meet them where they are and craft an individualized plan for each member coming through.”
Butler, who graduated in 2016 and earned a concurrent Master of Public Health from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, has been working with Refill Café since July 2017. In partnership with New Orleans’ Café Reconcile, the program strives to serve young adults who are disconnected from the workforce, continuing their education, or just looking for their next step.
The first five weeks of the 10-week program are spent in the classroom with courses that range from financial literacy to resume building and mock interviews. The curriculum is supplemented with guest speakers and field trips to employer sites in Jackson. Members spend the final five weeks in the café shadowing front of house and back of house positions.
“We see this as a chance for them to apply and practice some of those soft skills that we will introduce and start to talk about in the classroom setting,” Butler said of the final five weeks. “You can’t learn communication and teamwork in a vacuum. It’s important that members get to practice some of those skills in a safe and supportive environment.”
Butler’s experience in the classroom predates her time at the Clinton School. She worked as a middle school teacher in the Arkansas Delta for five years before coming to Little Rock. As a Clinton School student, she became involved with SPORK, a nutrition-based, hands-on cooking program for middle school kids and their families.
“What I found in the SPORK program was this perfect blend of working with middle school students and working with them in a non-traditional environment – both of which I had a passion for – and then connecting them with the experience of real food, another thing I had a passion for,” Butler said. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
How did you become involved with Refill Café?
While I was in Little Rock, in the concurrent MPH program, I was really focused on nutrition education. I worked with a program called SPORK for three years teaching nutrition-based cooking classes to middle schoolers and their families.
As I was looking at my next step, a restauranteur here in Jackson, along with his business partners, were interested in opening up another restaurant that was in the Café Reconcile model. They applied for and received an 18-month planning grant from Kellogg. Then they needed someone to run the programming.
This restauranteur went on a speaking tour, if you will, to talk about the program and started advertising that they were looking for someone to help them with this programming. It just so happened that my mother, who was in the audience of one of these presentations, thought, “My daughter is graduating, she might be interested.” It was one of those perfect-timing things.
What made you apply to the Clinton School?
I spent five years in Helena and thought, “Where do I see myself next?” I fell in love with working in the schools. It was the perfect environment for me and the way that I function. I love the school setting; I love working with young people. But I didn’t know that teaching in a traditional classroom was my calling.
I thought maybe social work was my calling because I loved everything about working with my kids and their families. I wasn’t necessarily interested in the demands of creating a curriculum and running through seven periods per day trying to meet the needs of 25 young people at a time.
When I started talking to alums, one of the biggest pieces of the Clinton School that made me think it was the place for me was the field work: The practicum experience, going abroad, and then creating a project in which you’re immersed in what you’re learning in a real-world setting. I’m very hands-on and very interactive.
One of the reasons I didn’t want to go back to school to be a teacher was that, in my experience, I didn’t know how you could learn how to do it without being in a classroom environment, without working with students. I learned how to do this by doing it, which is what the Clinton School offers.
What were your field service experiences?
I did a project in Hot Springs with Garland County Habitat for Humanity. There, I worked with three other women who I still keep in touch with. I had a great experience.
For my IPSP, I moved to Tanzania, worked with Village Life Outreach and did an evaluation of a school nutrition program. I really got a taste of not only schools in the international context, but school nutrition in an international context. Having to go to another country and another culture, and I really went somewhere that was really remote, very rural, and having to just figure it out. Everything from not having internet, not having power, not having all of those things, to the language barrier – it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
I loved the immersive experiences. The Clinton School didn’t solve things for us, it prepped us. They said, “When you step outside these walls, there’s only so much we can prepare you for,” which was absolutely true.