Betty Ewing was something of a prisoner to her success.
In the early 1990’s, Betty was the owner of the three-star Blue Sky Cafe in Mountain View. Like many other restaurateurs, though, that success came with a price: Betty practically lived in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“You have to put in 80 to 90 hours a week working,” Betty says. “You can feel like you are not participating in the world around you.” That was troubling to Betty, whohad long wanted contribute something more than just food to her patrons and profits to her family.
Betty’s solution, though, was not to leave her restaurant to help out in the community, it was to bring the community in.
In 1993, Betty approached administrators at Los Altos High school with an idea: give her some troubled students, ones in danger of not graduating, and let them come work in her kitchen for a few hours a week.
“It was a noodle-on-the-wall idea,” Betty recalls, “and the results were immense. I just kept looking around myself thinking, ‘Wow, this is working!’”
The students, Betty says, many who were having trouble in a school setting, thrived in the loud, fast-paced, atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen. As the young people learned, then mastered, new skills in the kitchen, Betty saw their confidence in themselves rise. She also saw their grades and their attitudes toward school improve.
Betty's experiment soon grew to become a non profit: The El Cajon Project. That first year, Betty started with just a handful of students, but the organization now handles forty students each year. In its tweny-year history El Cajon has placed close to 800 students in Bay Area restaurants.
Betty now partners with seven Bay Area school districts to place students in a dozen upscale restaurants.
Just like running a restaurant, though, Betty says it is a lot of work. At 62-years-old, she says she often thinks about hanging up her apron, but then a student will share with her how El Cajon helped them turn their lives around, and Betty decides stick around at least a little longer.
"Even the littlest thing I can do," Betty says, "I can make a difference. I can change someone's pathway."