Plaza Perks Cafe employees who left the foster care system say the opportunity to work can be life-changing.
STOCKTON, California – In a three-story building in the heart of Stockton’s bustling downtown neighborhood, life changes with each unique drink or handcrafted food item sold at Plaza Perks Cafe.
20-year-old Margarete Polak-Youmans starts her day early. As the café’s head barista, she is responsible for being at the Main Street Coffee Shop by 6am each morning to prepare dozens of salads and wraps and prepare for what is usually a busy day.
“Sometimes it can be a bit boring,” Polak-Youmans said.
While the job, like most others in the hospitality industry, has its challenges, for her, coming to work every day is a life-changing opportunity.
“Before foster care and this program, I was homeless for four years. My mother left me,” Polak-Youmans said. “I really had no choice.”
Before Parents by Choice, an organization that caters to the needs of children in the foster care system, bought the cafe in 2020, Polak-Youmans faced the situation that many other kids like their face when they come out of the foster care system.
“When you turn 18, it’s pretty much like, ‘Okay, pack your bags, find out.’ You don’t have to go anywhere. You have no family,” she said. “Thanks to this program, I was able to get my own apartment, get a paycheck. This is my first job.”
Cafe Manager Sara Dowdy has seen first-hand the impact of age outside of foster care for years and volunteers for Parents By Choice.
“Some of our children are immediately displaced and have no one to rely on to provide them with that financial or emotional support,” Dowdy said. “You’re basically on your own.”
When the agency opened the café, she was hired to run it as the café’s manager, or “momager” as her family of employees affectionately call her.
“I love it. It’s my passion,” Dowdy said. “I’m here all the time. If they need a ride home, I’ll drive them home. I try to do everything I can.”
As one of several coffeehouses serving thousands of hungry and thirsty downtown workers each day, Plaza Perks’ purpose is part of what sets them apart.
“The reason we started was to provide a job opportunity for our current and former foster children,” Dowdy said. “To help them process trauma and things that happened in their past while they’re at work because you often get triggered at work.”
The opportunity to work at the cafe, which is only offered to children leaving the foster care system, is part of Parents By Choice’s transitional housing program.
The program provides care and housing for foster youth up to the age of 21.
“We’re giving them the skills they need to be successful in the future,” Dowdy said. “They are capable of having stability in their lives and hopefully not going back to where they were.”
The stability and sense of community that the program and job provide is something Polak-Youmans says she thinks about outside of the cafe’s 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours each weekday.
“[When] They carry so much trauma that some days it can be exceptionally hard to get out of bed,” Polak-Youmans said. “As soon as I get out of bed and go there, it’ll be fine because these people know my temper, what I’ve been through and what I’m juggling.”
While it can be difficult to decide what to order from the cafe’s 52+ item menu, Polak-Yumas is always ready to help uncertain customers.
“Whenever someone orders something with oat milk, I can already tell that it will be a delicious drink. My current favorite thing is oat milk,” she said.
Behind the coffee stand, Polak-Youmans feels at home. It’s an imaginary home that offers tangible benefits that most other foster children don’t think they get, and all of that is made possible through the Plaza Perks Café.
“This whole thing has really been a blessing and has taken so much weight off my shoulders,” Polak-Youmans said. “It was beyond any other opportunity I’ve ever received.”
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