Elevated Dreams - United Way of Greater St. Louis

He slips on his coat and out the door.

Twenty-year-old Darius makes his way to Drake’s Place, a small family-owned restaurant in Ferguson.

A senior couple seated in the corner calls his name. It’s hugs all around. They catch up before Darius heads to the back.

“Regulars,” he says with a smile.

He takes in the sight of the bustling kitchen. It’ll be a busy day but that’s the way he likes it.

He flips on the sink.

Plink! Plop! Plunk! Plates, bowls, cups, silverware disappear into soapy shallows. Water rises and steam billows, making the air hot and heavy.

His hand dives beneath the bubbly layer and retrieves a fork.

“Landing a job as a dishwasher changed my life,” Darius says.

He gives it a good scrub and plunges in for another.

Darius grabs his apron and makes his way across the kitchen.

Flour, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, pepper, garlic powder – he runs through his mental checklist.

He skillfully batters the wings, throws them in the skillet and rolls them with his spatula.

“My favorite thing to make,” he says with a smile.

Darius was hired as a dishwasher when he first came to Drake’s Place more than a year ago. He worked his way up to gathering ingredients for the chefs. Now he’s trying his hand at becoming one of them.

Sunny, the restaurant’s owner, watches over his shoulder.

“We talk about him going to culinary school, then coming back here full time,” Sunny says. “He’s one of the best workers we have.”

Darius plucks the wings from the pan and places them on the plate. He adds some sprigs of parsley.

“I want to open my own restaurant someday,” Darius says. “That’s my goal. That’s my dream.”

A dream. Something Darius didn’t have a strong grasp on before he came here.

He knew he wanted to do something worthwhile.

He saw the protests in Ferguson in 2014 and it got him thinking about his position in life.

“I learned a lot,” Darius says. “I learned you got to cherish your moments, cherish your family because all you’ve got is family.”

Growing up, Darius watched his oldest brother, Dante, graduate and get a job. Darius valued that and vowed he’d do the same. He wanted to follow in his big brother’s footsteps – make something of his life, build a career, make his family proud.

But the unexpected happened. Dante took his own life when Darius was 14. It rocked his world and left his family lost. Losing his role model extinguished Darius’ passion, and he dropped out of high school.

“I’ll regret that all my life because I made a promise to my brother,” Darius says.

After dropping out, Darius found part-time work doing odd jobs around his community. He knew it wasn’t a long-term career, but he was determined to stay busy while he searched for his passion.

He had the tools necessary to succeed – motivation, ethics, passion – but was missing a few crucial elements.

“What most people take for granted is knowing how to apply for jobs, how to interview, what to wear and how to handle problems at work,” Darius says. “I didn’t have any of those skills. I was never taught them.”

Two years ago, Darius got connected to job readiness training through a partnership of MERS/Missouri Goodwill, a United Way-supported agency, and STL Youth Jobs.

The program is designed to support enrichment and development in communities across St. Louis by bridging the divide between youth and skills necessary to land a job. They provide individualized career assessment, financial literacy, job readiness training, employment experience and career support.

Research shows that youth employment programs are one of the most effective ways to transform youth outcomes – benefiting our economy and community.

Darius was matched with MERS Goodwill career coach Chaille’ Jackson. He attended the financial literacy program, where he learned about balancing a checkbook, credit scores and what to expect when he received his first paycheck.

“When searching for an employer my number one goal is to make sure the youth do well enough to a point where the employer would hire them regardless of the program,” Chaille’ says.

Darius has done that and much more.

Because of his training and coaching from MERS Goodwill and STL Youth Jobs, his character and work ethic, Darius gained the knowledge and experience needed to land his first job with Drake’s Place. Then, he landed a second job, which means more hours, more income and more opportunity.

“It feels good,” Darius says about the freedom of having his own paycheck.

His plan for the next few years is to earn his GED, continue working at Drake’s Place while attending culinary school and eventually open his own restaurant.

And Sunny is more than happy to help him get there.

“Teenagers aren’t supposed to have this kind of work ethic. He’s really raising the bar for our youth volunteers and even our full-time employees,” Sunny said. “I was surprised when Darius said this was his first job.”

But it’s more than just a job. It’s the start of something much bigger.

Because Darius has a job, he has the ability to take care of himself. He was able to buy a car to get around. When times are tight, he helps out his mom. He’s able to buy his little brother things like Beats headphones for his birthday – something Dante used to do for Darius growing up.

Because of this job, Darius can take care of himself and his family. And to Darius, family is everything.

“That’s the top priority: take care of the people around you because they took care of you when you couldn’t take care of yourself.”

Watch Darius’ story:

About MERS/Missouri Goodwill Industries
MERS Goodwill’s mission is to provide opportunities for persons with barriers to employment to work and live more independently in the community. They provide a variety of programs and services to help support this mission. Some of the many programs and services offered are career counseling, skills training, education and literacy programs, employment services and more. Their vision is a community where each individual has the opportunity to learn, work and achieve their greatest potential. MERS Goodwill has been a United Way funded agency since 1941.

About STL Youth Jobs
STL Youth Jobs envisions a city where our youth have the opportunity they need to succeed and our businesses have the workforce they need to compete. They bridge the divide between our region’s youth and the growing skills gap in our workforce. They accomplish this by training youth to be ready for the jobs of tomorrow through individualized career assessment, financial literacy and job readiness training, employment experience and continuing career support.