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Helping disadvantaged women gain work skills and find employment

Work Options for Women (WOW) has helped very hard-to-employ individuals overcome personal barriers and obtain employment in the food service industry for 20 years. In 1997 a social worker began what is now known as WOW by starting a culinary job-training program to help disadvantaged women obtain entry-level employment in food service. Today, we not only prepare disadvantaged workers to obtain entry-level employment, we work to insure that graduates have the culinary skills, job-readiness skills, life skills and ongoing support that they will need to retain sustainable employment and pursue a permanent career. WOW’s board and staff have been working over the last year to add a new target population and a new service-delivery model.

In 2018, we will offer culinary training at our current cafes and at a halfway house for ex-offenders. We are proud of our recent accomplishments. In 2017 WOW was the only Denver agency selected to receive substantial funding from Impact 100 Denver Metro; these grant funds are being used for a new mobile culinary classroom and program expansion. And, we have recently established several new partnerships within the re-entry community.

Agency goals

Our current agency goals are to:

  1. Increase the number of disadvantaged, hard-to-employ individuals who are able to obtain entry-level employment in the food service industry
  2. Insure that program graduates have the culinary skills, life skills and extra support they need to retain employment and advance in a food service industry career
  3. Operate our organization efficiently, making the most effective use of our agency resources
  4. Expand our target population to include additional groups of underserved, hard-to-employ individuals
  5. Work to diversify and expand our agency’s sources of revenue

Current programs

In addition to our main program, we operate two social enterprise cafes. The students we serve are hard-to-employ and must overcome major barriers prior to obtaining employment. In 2018, will expand our target population and bring our culinary training program to a halfway house for ex-offenders using our new mobile culinary classroom (a self-contained kitchen/classroom, similar to a 24’ Food Truck, that can be towed to various locations).

Expanding our target population will substantially increase the number of hard-to-employ individuals we serve annually.

  • In 2016, 136 students enrolled in our Culinary Skills Job Training Program
  • All students were low-income: 79 percent received TANF benefits and/or food stamps and 24 percent were homeless when they entered training
  • 80 percent of students had a criminal history and 26 percent had a previous felony conviction.
  • 82 percent were female
  • 32 percent lacked a high school diploma or GED
  • 60 percent self-reported they had been victims of domestic violence.

In 2018, we expect to reach 270 students — 150 students who will be trained at our community-based social enterprise cafes and 120 students who will be trained in our mobile culinary classroom. We expect that all program graduates will have the culinary skills, job-readiness skills, life skills and ongoing support that they will need to pursue a permanent and sustainable career.

Barriers to employment

Given Denver’s record low unemployment, it might seem that even individuals facing serious barriers can get a job without a training/support program like ours. But in reality, across the country, 60 to 70 percent of individuals with a criminal history are unable to find employment for more than 12 months after release. It's unlikely that those who face the most serious employment barriers will be able to retain employment until they begin addressing the underlying challenges to stability in their lives.

Community labor needs

There is a strong community need for our services. The Denver area desperately needs skilled culinary workers. WOW’s sector-focused skills training and multiple opportunities for hands-on skills practice give our students self-confidence and a “leg up” when they seek employment. Our job-readiness training and ongoing support help to increase the likelihood our graduates will be able to remain employed. By helping our students to master the skills needed to retain permanent employment, we also indirectly help to increase stability and positive outcomes for the families of our students; an important first step in breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty.

Goals for culinary skills job training

Our goal is to help students reduce their individual barriers to employment while they are learning (and practicing) both the culinary skills and the soft skills they will need to obtain sustainable employment. We anticipate reaching the following measurable outcomes:

  • 110 students will complete program through employment
  • Average entry wage for all students will be $11.50 per hour
  • 95 percent of students with a felony conviction will complete advanced training
  • Average entry wage for students with felony conviction will be $11.15 per hour
  • 80 percent of graduates will maintain employment for six months
  • 75 percent will maintain employment for 12 months

The key components of Culinary Job Skills Training include:

  • Job-readiness training. We provide direct instruction in soft skills, work ethics, kitchen math skills, financial literacy, teamwork, workplace communication skills and expectations in a professional kitchen setting.
  • Core culinary skills training. Chef/Instructors provide sector-focused training in kitchen safety and cooking techniques using live instruction, supervised hands-on training and online courses. Students master culinary safety and sanitation, kitchen vocabulary, production and cooking techniques, and basic knife skills.
  • Advanced training electives. Students with a criminal history are strongly encouraged to complete advanced training and earn American Culinary Federation (ACF) Prep Cook Certification, a highly-valued industry certification. Additional advanced training options include: WOW certification as a barista or in catering; transitional employment (supervised, on-the-job advanced training); and ACF Sous Chef Certification (an intensive two-year program).
  • Case management and support. Throughout the time students are in skills training, our case manager works individually with each to assess employment barriers, develop plans to address barriers, monitor progress, provide ongoing support and community referrals. The case manager works closely with probation officers, halfway house case managers, and other providers to insure services are not duplicated.
  • Positive reinforcement. Students can earn weekly cash incentives by adhering to standard employer expectations, such as remaining professional when communicating with chef/ co-workers despite the stress of a busy kitchen. Students are expected to adhere to employer expectations throughout their time in WOW programming.
  • Job search and employment services. We help students prepare resumes, practice interview skills, and complete online job applications.
  • Follow up support and referral services. We contact former students monthly for 1-year and then annually thereafter at their two and three year markers. Our students have lifelong follow-up services and are encouraged to contact WOW at any time to seek assistance, renew certifications, or pursue additional training or education.

We know that job training in isolation will not lead to sustained and permanent employment for students such as ours who face multiple employment barriers and whose lives are frequently chaotic and complicated. Our job-readiness training and individualized support services help students to increase the level of stability in their lives and to understand the expectations and behavioral norms of the workplace.

Based on best practices in workforce development, our sector-focused skills training, industry certifications, hands-on skills practice and job search assistance helps to prepare even very hard-to-employ individuals to obtain permanent employment. In short, we offer students a hand-up, not a hand-out.


WOW uses evaluation results to inform programming and strategic planning. We measure program impact by evaluating the progress made by our students. To evaluate the culinary training program’s impact we track:

  • Pre/post self-esteem testing via the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale
  • Student demographic information and barriers faced by our students
  • Number of students who enter and complete our training program; number who obtain and retain employment
  • Number who advance their career (e.g. promotion and/or wage increase) within 12-months. We monitor student progress towards employability by reviewing case notes and monitoring progress made on individual case plans.

To monitor client satisfaction and to obtain student input on how our training program can be improved, we conduct graduate surveys annually. We also seek employer input about our training program through annual employer satisfaction surveys.

Since 2012, WOW has taken part in a national benchmarking project with the Workforce Benchmarking Network. As part of this project, WOW is able to compare its own outputs and outcomes with those of other workforce development providers serving similar populations across the country.


WOW has key strategic alliances with Denver Department of Health and Human Services and Mile High United Way; we share space with these agencies to house our social enterprise/ training sites. We recently developed new partnerships with Intervention Community Corrections Services (ICCS) and Community, Education & Outreach (CEO) to provide our program to ex-offenders at the halfway house. Denver’s Community Re-Entry Project (CRP) has agreed to help us to recruit potential staff and board members. We receive client referrals from Workforce Centers, social services agencies, churches, homeless shelters, and domestic violence shelters.


WOW defines inclusiveness to encompass both diversity and the underlying respect we have for the needs, viewpoints and contributions of all people. In August 2017, our board and staff adopted clear, written policies that formalize WOW’s long commitment to inclusiveness and diversity. WOW has prioritized recruiting potential staff and board members from diverse backgrounds. We are intentionally recruiting potential staff/board member candidates from our former student population and through outreach to Denver’s Community Re-Entry Project (CRP). CRP has agreed to help us recruit potential staff and board members with knowledge of the re-entry process and diverse perspectives.

In addition, our culinary training program has been intentionally designed to meet the needs of our diverse student population. As many of our students have less than a high school education, we can provide individual tutoring to help students master kitchen math or read/understand the content in our online courses. We can provide oral testing for students who struggle with written language. Most of our students have a criminal record; we provide coaching on how to explain a criminal past to a prospective employer. Many students were victims of domestic violence; we have brought in SafeHouse Denver to provide individual coaching/counseling onsite at WOW.

Our staff is diverse and reflects the population we serve. We have 16 staff members; seven are an ethnic minority; five are former WOW students; and 15 have a criminal history or experience working with ex-offenders.

Board governance

Our board is primarily responsible for setting the mission and direction of the organization, making policy decisions, and establishing the agency budget. Our board members collectively provide our agency with expertise in the following areas: legal issues, finance, nonprofit management, restaurant marketing and management, and social work. Board members can serve up to two three-year terms.

The board meets monthly to review staff reports outlining progress towards meeting agency goals related to our job training program, café operations, and fundraising and we have three active board committees. In addition, our board members spend about four hours per month (48 hours) donating time to various events and planning sessions. Each of our board members makes a personal financial contribution to our agency each year and each participates in our annual fundraising event.

Planning for the future

Last year, our board and key staff completed a formal strategic planning process for 2016-2021. WOW is currently focused on finishing the design details for the new mobile culinary classroom and hiring/training additional staff. In 2018 and beyond, we plan to: develop new partnerships and solidify existing partnerships with key stakeholders in the criminal justice system; continue to modify our job-training program, as needed, to best meet the needs of our students; and continue to search for new state, local and foundation funding opportunities.

Initially, the mobile classroom will help us reach residents at a Jefferson County halfway house for ex-offenders. In the future, we expect to partner with other jails and halfway houses across the metro area, allowing us to bring our effective job-training program to ex-offenders in other settings. In addition, to mark our 20th year of operations, we are hosting 20 outreach/fundraising events during 2017 to introduce WOW to new potential donors and to increase donations from our long-time donors.



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