NEW ORLEANS – First Lady Laura Bush was so impressed by the work being done at a New Orleans cafe since Hurricane Katrina, she asked the restaurant's owner to be her guest in Washington for the president's State of the Union address Tuesday.
Cafe Reconcile was launched as a community improvement effort in 2000 to help curb violence, crime and poverty by giving at-risk teens jobs. Craig Cuccia, who has been working with young people in the restaurant industry for roughly a decade, is co-founder and serves as executive director. He was invited to attend Tuesday's State of the Union address with the First Lady.
The cafe is in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. It trains at-risk youths for work in the restaurant industry. After Katrina, it was among the first businesses to reopen, serving hot meals to emergency workers and first responders.
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Two weeks ago, it was visited by the First Lady, who after having lunch there touted the cafe's efforts to rebuild the community and provide young people with jobs and skills. She spoke highly of the cafe's newest effort by a Katrina volunteer from Louisville, Ky., to offer training in construction jobs.
"There's a huge demand for construction jobs," the First Lady said after eating a plate of fried catfish and okra on Jan. 9. "And also construction jobs pay very well. So it's a great way for people to be trained."
Even if young people decide not to pursue careers in the restaurant industry or construction, the skills learned will be valuable in any field, the First Lady said.
Cuccia and others got the cafe up and running less than two months after Katrina. The building did not flood, but workers still had to cope with storm damage, coolers full of rotting food and the nearly deserted city.