New Orleans man honored for empowering youth with ‘Café’ program

.- Craig Cuccia will receive this year’s Sister Margaret Cafferty Development of People Award for his work training and employing at-risk teens and young adults in the hospitality industry in New Orleans.

The national award is given annually by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cuccia will receive the award Feb. 12 at the Annual Combined Social Ministry Meeting at the Capitol Hilton in Washington.

Cuccia is the co-founder and executive director of Café Reconcile, a restaurant in New Orlean’s Central City neighborhood. It provides practical, on-the-job training and life skills to local hospitality school students and other residents and helps them to develop expertise in restaurant service and management.

The Café, which began in 1997 as a modest candy shop in a renovated corner of a derelict building, is one of the city’s Top Ten soul food restaurants today, with no meal priced at more than $8.

The New Orleans native became involved in ministry in the mid-1990s through his spiritual director, the late Fr. Harry Tompson, SJ, who helped him open a center for homeless people. They bought the Central City building that is now home to Café Reconcile. They began to develop the Café as a cooperative project of the Learning for a Sustainable Future Foundation and the St. John Francis Regis Hospitality School.

The current Café operation opened in 2000. Since then, more than 250 young people have completed the training program. Many have moved on to careers in the city’s top restaurants and there are now 10 full-time neighborhood employees at the Café.

Hurricane Katrina did not devastate the Central City neighborhood to the same extent as some other neighborhoods, and Café Reconcile reopened less than two months later.

Interestingly, the damage has provided both challenges and opportunities for the café. Central City has become a newly desirable location, and Cuccia is working with a church group to develop affordable housing so that the low-income residents will be able to stay as the area gentrifies. He has also expanded the focus of his program to train young adults for the many construction jobs now available throughout the city.

In addition, Cuccia is increasing Café Reconcile’s catering operation, developing a family learning center and working on the model for a “business incubator” to bring new jobs to the area.

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