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How this 5-star restaurant serves great food and changes lives

  1. Strong & Safe Communities

How this 5-star restaurant serves great food and changes lives

Café Momentum’s mission has always been about more than serving meals. It’s just getting started.

Cafe Momentum founder Chad Houser teachers interns how to cook.

Martwan Darden thought that his first encounter with Café Momentum would be his last. He had no idea how much the organization would transform his life for years to come. 

In 2015, Darden took a one-off server gig with Café Momentum to earn a quick $60. The organization offers work to justice system-involved youth at its top restaurants in Dallas and Pittsburgh, through which young people obtain work experience and life skills coaching. Four years after that one-off gig, Darden overheard some peers on the bus talking about their jobs. His interest was piqued. 

“I had just lost my job,” he remembered. “No high school diploma. Very harsh living conditions due to poor decisions I made. I was desperate to find a job. I heard some young people on the bus talking about Café Momentum, and I asked them, ‘Hey, where do you work? That sounds pretty cool.’”

Darden ended up taking on a year-long internship at Café Momentum’s Dallas location. By the time he completed it, he had obtained a high school diploma, a stable apartment, and entry into college.

I’munique Liggens’ life was similarly transformed at the restaurant. By 2019, she had spent years in and out of juvenile detention, having dropped out of school in the eighth grade and sometimes living out of a car. Her probation officer told her about Café Momentum, and by the time her internship was through, Liggens had gained a diploma, work experience, mental health support, and a place to live. 

Throughout their internships, Darden and Liggens obtained much more than just degrees and jobs for their CVs: They both said they gained a support system, a sense of self, and the realization that a more fulfilling life was well within their reach. 

Café Momentum’s work empowers youth to realize their potential and pursue the lives they want for themselves, on their own terms. A recent documentary as well as planned expansion into Atlanta this year both demonstrate the organization’s “Momentum Model of Youth Justice” for change. 

That model is doing a lot more than just transforming lives. It’s providing a blueprint that could turn support systems for justice-impacted youth on their heads.

Helping youth build bigger dreams — and make them a reality

Café Momentum isn’t just helping young people with diplomas or apartments; the experience builds their confidence, motivation, and sense of self. That leads to success for life, not just over the next few years. 

“[The way] I was raised, my mom taught me right from wrong,” described Liggens. “Being hard-working, being a rightful person, showing compassion, and being loving and all of those things that represent me — I grew up having that, but unfortunately going through the things that I went through, I had to block all those things off to protect myself while struggling. I put that wall up … So my objective when I first came to Café, it was like, ‘I’m just getting this check. I’m not telling these people my business.’”

But Liggens’ case manager at Café Momentum helped break through her hard exterior and encouraged her to start visualizing, not just the things she wanted, but the person she wanted to become. 

“She was phenomenal,” Liggens said. “She showed me that I can be me despite adversity, and I applaud her for that. I feel like being able to visually see the person you want to be later on in life or just seeing someone else with the characteristics that you want to have — it’s inspiring.”

Community is an essential piece of Café Momentum’s individual-oriented approach. By surrounding youth with supportive role models, the nonprofit gives them the space to reflect and identify the best qualities they can offer, not only to themselves but to their peers and the larger community. 

That sense of belonging and feeling accepted, valued, and respected is crucial — not just for the individuals working at Café Momentum, but for their peers as well. When community members can develop a relationship and sense of trust with justice-involved youth, individuals from different backgrounds and beliefs are able to come together. In that way, the Café is helping build bridges that strengthen the social fabric of our communities.  

“I feel like when you’re surrounded by things that are good and uplifting, you have no choice but to absorb it,” Liggens said. “I feel like Café is that space. It’s that safe haven. It’s that place where you can go in and can really be transformed because of what they see [in you]. I feel like they were letting us know, ‘We know you’re going through this right now.’ There were plenty of times during shifts in the restaurant … [I would hear] small things that they say, like, ‘Beautiful, how are you doing today? Girl, you are working hard today.’ Those small things matter. I came out a whole new person.”

Café Momentum isn’t just building skills or talents in its youth. It is helping them discover strengths that they already possess but haven’t identified or cultivated because they lacked the opportunities and safe environment to do so. This self-discovery compounds the positive effects of education, housing, and work experience. On their own, these assets can provide a quick fix for those in crisis, but when built up alongside a young person’s core sense of identity, that individual is poised to lead a more fulfilling and principled life for years to come. 

“The people that they placed around us were hard-working, motivated people,” Liggens said. “My case manager was my person. [She] looked at me in my eyes. She hit me with affirmations because there was a point of time where I didn’t see the beauty within myself. So I had to do a lot of self-discovering for myself … I’m smart. I am beautiful. I am in control. I am confident. All those things play a part in my life today.”

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A model of change for everyone, nationwide

The Café Momentum model is bigger than one organization. In 2020, Founder and CEO Chad Houser created Momentum Advisory Collective to scale the program nationally. Houser shares stories like Liggens’ and Darden’s to show that youth justice programs can win when they put individuals first. The hope is that other organizations will notice and take the idea. 

“Building Momentum” is a new 50-minute documentary that tells Houser’s story and his approach to providing comprehensive, transformative care to justice-involved youth. The documentary highlights the organization’s methods of combining employment and education with community and personal development. Using personal stories shows just how powerful the model can be and how empowering young people to believe in themselves leads to life changes for years to come. 

“Every time we give our ambassadors the opportunity to speak their truth, to speak their lived experience, [they] advocate for the Momentum model becoming the new model for juvenile justice,” said Houser. 

Café Momentum’s expansion also speaks to the effectiveness of the Momentum model. It is opening a new brick-and-mortar restaurant in Atlanta this year that will serve between 60 and 80 young people in its first year alone. In November 2023, Café Momentum received $1 million from the Denver Broncos Foundation, allowing the nonprofit to open an additional location in Denver. Houser hopes to expand to every city with an NFL team, building on the organization’s relationship with the professional sports league. 

The benefits won’t just be felt by the youth who participate in the Café Momentum internship, either. Finding a more sustainable, effective way of addressing juvenile justice has tangible benefits for local communities as well. In Colorado, for instance, the state spends $132,000 annually per incarcerated youth. Besides economic impacts, communities are strengthened by the contributions of youth who are driven and motivated to use their skills and talents. 

The ultimate goal is to showcase the proven effectiveness of the Momentum model so organizations nationwide that work with justice-impacted youth can consider alternative solutions that are also rooted in community and a recognition of each young person’s individual dignity and potential. “Café Momentum’s successful model is a proven alternative, focusing on empowering youth to flourish and realize their full potential, hence providing a more constructive pathway forward,” a press release from the organization states. “Investing in Café Momentum is investing in a better, more equitable future.”

Café Momentum doesn’t only change the lives of justice-impacted youth

The 12-month internship is just the first step. 

“We spread the word of the mission of Café Momentum by sharing our stories, and showing the power of vulnerability,” Darden said. “We show the youth in the community that it’s a chance for change.”

It’s the community impact that really sets Café Momentum apart. By uplifting local youth, Café Momentum is providing a benefit to surrounding communities, as well. Having justice-involved young people working in restaurants and interacting with patrons provides community members with an opportunity to talk to, learn about, and engage directly with them. This can result in impactful shifts in thinking about what juvenile justice looks like as well as dispelling common misconceptions and prejudices about justice-involved youth. 

Community members who walk into a Café Momentum restaurant undergo much more than just a mindset shift. Many local people become active advocates for Café Momentum youth, connecting them to jobs and other opportunities after their internships are through. 

Both Liggens and Darden have continued to work with Café Momentum as ambassadors in the years since they first interned. Through these roles, they work to encourage more community members to engage with Café Momentum and grow that crucial pool of community advocates. 

Darden has worked as a private chef for several different employers and is currently excited to interview for a managerial position at a local company. He tries to attend as many events with Café Momentum as he can and use his story as a model to encourage youth new to the program to undergo self-reflection and growth. 

“When we go to spread the gospel about Café Momentum, I go,” he said. “Every opportunity they have, I try my best to jump on it and be a part of it. [Whether] it’s a Zoom call or just stopping by the restaurant, showing my face and presence.”

After her internship, Liggens attended junior college for two years. She is now a sophomore at Prairie View A&M University where she serves as president of the Black Student Association and vice president of research and development for the Student Government Association, all while also working as a senior ambassador for the Momentum Advisory Collective. 

She hopes that Darden’s and her stories will inspire justice-involved youth and the organizations that work with them to see the impact that Café Momentum’s model can have. She sees Darden and herself as living proof that the right opportunities can make all the difference. 

Café Momentum is supported by Stand Together Foundation, which partners with the nation’s most transformative nonprofits to break the cycle of poverty.

Learn more about Stand Together’s efforts to build strong and safe communities, and explore ways you can partner with us.

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