NORTH CENTER — Rashaud Ellis served his first sentence for drug possession when he was 19 and his second when he was 21.
But two years later, after completing a 12-week training course at Blue Sky Bakery, Ellis has landed a job at Little Goat, the much anticipated companion restaurant to Stephanie Izard's acclaimed Girl & the Goat.
"I'm ready for the challenge," said Ellis, who was hired on as a dishwasher and prep cook for the restaurant that is expected to open soon. "I can't wait."
Ellis is one of the three dozen graduates of a program run by the artisan bakeshop at 3720 N. Lincoln Ave. The scones, cookies and cupcakes for sale in its pastry case are whipped up by the at-risk teens and young adults that Blue Sky provides with transitional employment while teaching them marketable job skills.
All of the participants in the Blue Sky program are under the age of 24, about half have criminal records, while the remainder typically face unstable housing conditions.
Lisa Thompson founded Blue Sky five years ago and operated the business out of Albany Park before relocating to North Center two years ago. As a former social worker, she realized that what her clients usually needed most was a job.
Thompson lacks formal culinary training but had years of experience turning out pies and other confections from her home kitchen.
"Baking was one thing I knew that I could teach," she said.
Probation officers and case workers, among others, refer potential trainees to her. She tutors four at a time. Seventy-five percent complete the 12-week program, particularly those who have been to jail.
"A lot of the youth who've been incarcerated are better candidates," she said. "They've seen the other side."
That certainly was the case with Ellis, who grew up near Pulaski Road and 18th Street and fell into a life of gangs, drugs and stealing.
"First of all, I don't like jail. It was a sobering, eye-opening experience," he said of meeting 30-year-old inmates who'd spent half their lives behind bars. "I wanted something different, but I didn't know how to go about it."
Ellis had to learn what Thompson calls "soft skills" — things like patience and customer service, as well as more technical skills like how to roll out a pie crust.
Tardiness is the most common reason Thompson dismisses students from the program.
"I had to discipline myself," said Ellis. "She ain't going to tolerate me being late."
"All these youth really need to be shown how to work," Thompson said of her stringent rules. "They're ready to get a paycheck, [but] they're not ready to work. Many of those in the program were born into a home without any support, without any structure or without any resources."
Englewood resident Marlon Fountain, another Blue Sky grad also hired by Little Goat, was raised by his grandmother and cut adrift when she died in 2005.
"It was just a struggle. We didn't have that backbone," he said.
Fountain bounced around shelters and often slept outdoors.
"I didn't have no identification, no Social, no birth certificate," said Fountain, now 21. "It made me wiser. I grew up a little earlier."
A relative pointed him toward a social service agency that in turn led him to Blue Sky.
During the first week of the program, Thompson typically acquaints students with the tools of the trade, demonstrates how to use a kitchen scale and explains how to double recipes. Gradually the students work their way up to more complex tasks, from combining ingredients to mixing batter to frosting cakes.
"It is fun for the ones I can see taking to it," said Thompson. "They go from sort of going through the motions to truly understanding."
Fountain and Ellis proved quick studies.
"I learned a lot ... [like] how to check my muffins when they're done," said Fountain, who grew up watching his grandmother in the kitchen. "I just love cooking. I want to go further with it."
For his part, Ellis hopes to pursue a certification at some point and continue with a restaurant career. "I love to work under pressure," he said. "It's demanding, on point, you gotta be consistent."
Both Ellis and Fountain credit Thompson with providing the tough love needed to leave a life on the streets for one in the kitchen.
"Lisa, when she's mad and I almost let her down, she's scarier than any gang chief," said Fountain.
Ellis considers her as much a big sister as a boss.
"She's not only teaching me about baking but about manhood," he said.
Once students graduate from the program, Thompson assists them with their resume and interview skills and serves as their advocate when it comes time to apply for a job.
In an email, Izard said she was looking for workers who are "hard-working" and "who want to learn more" — and she said the Blue Sky trainees fit the bill.
"We were not too familiar with Blue Sky before we hired people from the program, but have learned more about it from them," she said. "We are willing to hire anyone from any background as long as they show their willingness to be part of our team."
Thompson has also worked with Lettuce Entertain You and Roosevelt University in helping students find employment.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Thompson is keeping Blue Sky financially afloat. She received just $28,000 in grants last year, down from $88,000 in 2008. She's plugged the gap with wholesale and catering contracts but noted, "No matter what we do, chances are we're never going to make money."
But she can count Ellis and Fountain as profit instead.
"I definitely think anyone that graduates is a success story," said Thompson. "Any of them that sticks it out for 12 weeks, I think, is a miracle."