This Neighborhood Café Is Serving Lattes and Sparking Change
Helix Café is the first venture from Helix, a nonprofit co-founded by Caitlin Botsios (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’13) that’s dedicated to creating career paths for young people.
When you walk into Helix Café, you know it’s a special place. A local nonprofit is having a meeting at one of its tables and two regulars are chatting on the couch. Behind the counter, co-founder Caitlin Botsios (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’13) is showing a local high school student how to make an espresso. On its surface, it may seem like just a vibrant neighborhood café, but it’s much more than that. It’s the first venture of Helix, a nonprofit dedicated to creating career pathways for young people.
When trying to figure out the next step in their own careers, Caitlin and her co-founder, Sean Connolly, kept circling back to one statistic: 70 percent of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. They saw two problems happening at the same time. First, young people are struggling to find jobs, and second, businesses are craving talent. To address both, they created Helix, which ultimately hopes to open small businesses across Chicago, which will each provide on-the-job training and professional development for young people. “We get everything from sophomores and juniors who are deciding if they want to go to college, to someone who’s out of school and out of work, and may not have a high school diploma, and we help them all figure out what is next, why, and how they can get there,” say Caitlin.
Helix Café, which opened in Edgewater last May, is their first venture. As Loyola alumni, Caitlin and Sean have many community ties to that neighborhood, and after conversations with local businesses and nonprofits, they decided a café was the right choice. “We knew we needed a business that could employ a certain amount of people, and that was also a community space,” Caitlin says. To recruit their first program participants, they visited local high schools and youth-focused nonprofits. “We now have dozens of people on our waitlist,” Caitlin says. “The need for a program like this is clear.”
Program participants all begin in an entry-level position at the café. While learning the ins and outs of the café, they also participate in skill-building workshops and have biweekly one-on-ones with Helix staff. “When we start to get to know someone, we give them responsibilities at the café that are aligned to their next steps,” Caitlin says. Participants help design the menu and order supplies, plan community events, and become shift leads. They learn how to interact with customers and become good teammates. Caitlin wants them to truly own every aspect of the café. “We’re preparing people not just for jobs, but for careers, and that’s a huge shift in many youth mindsets,” Caitlin says.
Even though Helix is still a relatively new organization, it’s already changing lives. “It was challenging to find a job because I didn’t have much experience,” says James, a 21-year-old from Roseland. “I’m so glad I took this first step to a future job. Helix is a blessing.” Helix is helping James transition to an entry-level position in IT. The café also helps prepare high school students for college. “I’ve gained a lot of independence from working here,” says Mackera, a junior at Senn High School. “It’s a great way to let me know how things are going to be in college. They also do these workshops for finance and business, and I want to be a business women in the future, and it’s fun and I get to ask a lot of questions.”
When Caitlin reflects on the genesis of Helix, she thinks of her time in the classroom. “An entire community needs to be involved in a student’s education,” she says. Looking ahead, she’s excited to open more businesses on the city’s South and West Sides. “Small businesses are change agents,” she says. “And we can’t wait to see what businesses the youth we work with begin on their own.”