Serving up 2d chances, for diners, teens
An unlikely collaboration gives troubled youths fresh hope
By Jenna Russell, Boston Globe Staff January 6, 2008
CRANSTON, R.I. - The American Diner Museum had a problem: a growing storehouse of decrepit vintage diners, and no money, space, or labor to restore them.
The Rhode Island Training School had troubles of its own. A state correctional facility for juvenile offenders, under pressure to push young prisoners toward productive futures, it was facing the elimination of its carpentry classes.
Then museum and prison found each other, and forged an unexpected partnership.
Now, students at the Training School are restoring three of the museum's run-down diners, once beloved landmarks in Worcester and Taunton, and Concord, N.H. The troubled young men have learned dozens of marketable construction skills in the course of the painstaking renovation, said school leaders. The project will also give the Training School a groundbreaking new way to prepare its students for the workforce, when one of the rehabilitated diners is reopened and run as a restaurant by the young offenders.
"It's providing new life for the diners, and also new hope for the kids," said Daniel Zilka, the acting director of the American Diner Museum, which buys old diners and tries to find new owners to preserve them. "Their next stop, if they continue on the path of bad behavior, is adult corrections. This could be a chance for them to turn their lives around."
To oversee its move into the restaurant business, the prison has recruited another unlikely partner - a group of business majors at Bryant University in Smithfield. Members of a campus club, Students in Free Enterprise, they have broken into teams to draft a business plan for the prison-run diner, raise money for its restoration, and teach basic business classes for the teenage offenders.
During a recent class at the Training School, the uniformed teenagers slumped over their desks. Undaunted by their glazed looks, Bryant University junior Mike Howe launched into a mock job interview, playing the part of an ill-mannered applicant. He asked for "a lot of money," described being fired from his last job, and cut off his interviewer, telling him, "Hold on, my phone is ringing."
Behind the desks, faces brightened with appreciation for his performance. When Howe stopped and asked, "What was bad about that?" the young men were ready.
"Everything," they chorused, as their teacher beamed.
Tucked behind an upscale mall and surrounded by high wire fences, the Training School began in the 1800s as a workhouse where wayward youths learned blacksmithing and farming, said John Scott, the school's community liaison and a leader of the diner project. The Cranston facility, which is scheduled to relocate to a brand-new campus this year, houses 150 offenders, mostly males between 13 and 20, who serve an average sentence of six to nine months for crimes ranging from theft and drug possession to arson and murder.
The school's focus has shifted over time from vocational training to more traditional classroom education, said Scott. Concerned that the change has left students without the practical skills they need most, he said he was looking for a way to bolster vocational programs when he stumbled on the dilapidated diners.
"A lot of kids want to work with their hands, and we got away from that," Scott said. "I hope to see the pendulum move back."
The diner museum saw a rare opportunity in the project, not only to burnish some of its faded jewels, but to excite a younger generation about a disappearing slice of Americana. The Providence-based museum, founded in 1996, has no permanent exhibition space, but it collects old diners and helps find buyers.
To cover the costs of the restoration, project leaders persuaded a Rhode Island company, New Harvest Coffee Roasters of Pawtucket, to create a special brand, called New Hope, to help raise funds for the students' work. All sales of the coffee directly benefit the restoration. Bryant students are marketing the brand, creating a website for the coffee, recruiting retail outlets to sell it, and promoting it at events, netting more than $5,000 in sales since October.
"What we're really selling is the story behind the coffee," said Julie Wentzell, a senior marketing major from Lynnfield, Mass.
Working indoors for the winter, Training School students are stripping wooden window frames taken from some of the diners, which sit parked outside under shrink-wrapped plastic. In the course of the restoration, they will have learned woodworking, roofing, welding, and wiring, among other trades, said their carpentry teacher, Norm Lambert. This winter they will learn how to make stained glass so they can replace missing window panes.
The young men said they hope the finished diners will change attitudes about them in the community.
"I hope it tells them not to give up on people," said Jermaine, 18, whose last name was withheld by officials under school rules. "People made mistakes, but mistakes are part of life. That's why they put the eraser on the pencil."
The three diners now being fixed up at the Training School were built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. Made before the age of the classic stainless-steel diner, their bodies are galvanized metal and porcelain enamel. Sherwood's Diner was run by the Ryan family in Worcester, and beloved by the city's police, before it closed in 1969. Hickey's Diner was a fixture in Taunton into the 1990s. Louis' Diner stood in Newburyport, and later, in Concord.
Mike's Diner, a former Providence landmark, is on its way from its last home in Kentucky to Cranston, where Training School students will replace the roof. When finished, Mike's will be reopened and run as a restaurant by Training School students. Other diners may also reopen. Scott said a Providence restaurant may run one of the diners and employ students from the Training School there.
The success of the project has prompted the museum to place more diners in the hands of vocational students. Students at high schools in Cranston and Lincoln, and participants in a federally funded Job Corps program in Exeter, will restore three other diners, said Zilka.
The diners now at the Training School are among some 2,400 that survive nationwide, Zilka said, half as many as 50 years ago. The school's efforts to reopen the diners are essential, he said, to preserve the diner experience as well as its architecture.
"The diners get restored, the kids get something cool to work on, and the Bryant students learn more about business," said Scott. "There's something in it for everyone."
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American Diner Museum
- New Hope Diner Project
- P.O.Box 6022 Providence, Rhode Island 02940, United States
- WWW.AMERICANDINERMUSEUM.ORG - American Diner Museum a member of the New Hope Alliance is a Federally recognized 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and all donations may be tax deductible. The Museum will provide the necessary documentation for tax purposes. However, an appraisal of non monetary gifts will be the responsibility of the donor.