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Changing lives with coffee | Downtown Stockton café offers employment to foster youth

Aging out of the foster care system, employees at Plaza Perks Café say the opportunity to work can be life-changing.

STOCKTON, Calif. — In a three-story building in the heart of Stockton's busy downtown district, lives are changing with each unique drink or hand-crafted food item sold at the Plaza Perks Café.

Margarete Polak-Youmans starts her days early. As the café's lead barista, the 20-year-old is responsible for being at the Main Street coffee shop by 6 a.m. each morning to make dozens of salads and wraps and prep for what is normally a busy day.

"Sometimes it can be a little bit tedious," Polak-Youmans said.

While the job, like most others in the foodservice industry has its challenges, for her, getting to work every day is a life-changing opportunity. 

"Before foster care and this program, I had been homeless for four years. My mother had abandoned me," Polak-Youmans said. "I had really no choice."

Before Parents by Choice, an organization serving the needs of children in the child welfare system bought the café in 2020, Polak-Youmans was facing the situation many other children like her face when aging out of the foster care system. 

"When you turn 18, it's pretty much like, 'Okay, pack your bags, figure it out.' You don't have anywhere to go. You don't have any family," she said. "Thanks to this program, I've been able to get my own apartment, get a paycheck. This is my first job."

Café manager Sara Dowdy has seen the impacts of aging out of the child foster care system firsthand for years, working as a volunteer for Parents By Choice. 

"Some of our kids immediately are forced out, and they don't have someone to rely on to provide them with that financial support or that emotional support," Dowdy said. "They're just basically by themselves."

When the agency opened the café, Dowdy was tapped to lead 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 rides home, I give them rides home. I try to do whatever I can."

As one of several coffeehouses serving thousands of hungry and thirsty downtown workers every day, Plaza Perks' purpose is part of what makes them stand out. 

"The reason why we were established was to offer our foster youth, both current and former, a job opportunity," Dowdy said. "Helping them work through traumas and things that have happened in their past while they're on the job because often you're triggered while you're at work."

The opportunity to work at the café, offered only to children leaving the foster care system, is part of Parents By Choice's transitional housing program. The program offers care and housing for foster youth until the age of 21. 

"We give them the skills that they're going to need to be successful in the future," Dowdy said. "They're able to have stability in their lives and hopefully not regress back to where they were."

The stability and sense of community offered by the program and job is something that Polak-Youmans says she thinks about even outside of the coffee shop's 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours each weekday. 

"[When] you're carrying so much trauma, it can be exceptionally hard to get out of bed some days," Polak-Youmans said. "Once I get out of bed, and I go there, it's going to be OK because these people know my temperament, what I've been through and what I'm juggling."

While it can be hard to decide what to order from the cafe's 52-plus item menu, Polak-Yumas is always ready to help unsure customers.

"Whenever anyone orders something with oat milk, I can tell already it'll be a delicious drink. My current favorite obsession is oat milk," she said. 

Behind the coffee stand is where Polak-Youmans feels at home. It's a figurative home delivering tangible benefits, which she says most other foster youth do not get, and it's all made possible by Plaza Perks Café.

"This whole thing really has been a huge blessing and lifted so many weights off of my shoulders, " Polak-Youmans said. "It's been beyond any other opportunity that I've ever received."

Watch More from ABC10: Little Manila: A look into the rich history of Filipino Americans in Stockton, California