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Cookies are crime prevention tool in north Minneapolis

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Icing cookies at the Cookie Cart Bakery
One of the paid youth employees of the Cookie Cart Bakery ices a tray of cookies as part of a program that teaches practical job skills and the responsibilites that come with employment.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The Cookie Cart is a sanctuary for 16-year-old Cordero Bridges.  Inside he is safe from the madness that infects some of his teenage peers.  

"There are some kids that just rip and run the streets, and there's nothing you can do. You can try to talk to them but they just won't listen, they just won't listen," he says.

Bridges is an exception.  He listened to his friend, a Cookie Cart graduate.  

Sister Jean Thuerauf with toys
Sister Jean Thuerauf, at home among the toys she collects to give to children in the Family Builders program.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"He told me to come into the Cookie Cart because it will help you out with a first job or something, so I just came here," he says.   

There are as many as 40 young people in the program at a time.  They learn how to mix batter, bake, decorate, pack and sell cookies.  The teen workers earn minimum wage.  They get help writing a resume' and practice interviewing for jobs.   Some have adult mentors to help with schoolwork.

Sister Jean Thuerauf, a Catholic nun, and others started the Cookie Cart 17 years ago.  

Thuerauf is an Iowa farm girl who entered the convent at age 19.   After years of teaching at a parochial school in a predominately white and wealthy Twin Cities suburb she decided the people there needed her less than those in north Minneapolis.

She and others started a religious program for neighborhood children on Tuesday afternoons after school.  Baking cookies was one of the activities.  As the children became teens some joined gangs.

But thousands of other young people have had their lives influenced by the Cookie Cart and their association with Sister Jean. 

Taronda Richardson and Cordero Bridges
Taronda Richardson, employment director for the Cookie Cart Bakery and employee Cordero Bridges.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

But time has not erased the sadness in her voice and eyes as she remembers a young man nearly 20 years ago, one she didn't reach in time.

Then, as now Sister Jean, was living and working on Minneapolis' near north side. Sitting on the front porch of her home just off West Broadway, she remembers a young man who had been in her after school program as a child. He'd joined a gang but wanted out, a decision he knew was life threatening.  

He asked sister Jean for sanctuary.  

"He had come to my door...and asked me to hide him.   And I told him I couldn't.  But I told him that he could come and bake cookies again," she recalls.  "And then I opened the paper on the day he was supposed to come and his picture was there and he had been killed.  So I took that as (my being) almost partly guilty for his death and decided we needed to do something for the teenagers."

The something was cookies.  Hundreds of dozens a week.  The customers are churches and other groups.

Taronda Richardson, the Cookie Cart's bakery and employment director says some of the teen workers come from homes hit by poverty.  

Wrapping cookies
A student worker packs cookies for retail sale at the Cookie Cart Bakery on the north side of Minneapolis. The bakery is part of a program to give young men and women practical job skills.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"A lot of them, even at their tender age of 14, might be the only one working in their household," she says.

Richardson and three other adults run the business. She also coaches the kids.  She grew up in St. Paul as a foster child and says she was placed in one bad foster after another until landing in one where she flourished. She sees the disappointment in the teenagers when parents lose jobs or families break apart.   Richardson says she tells the young people how she persevered as a teen.  

"Just because life starts off rough does not mean that that's the end for you or that you don't have a say in what sort of life you're going to live or what sort of adult you are going to become," she says.

Many north Minneapolis young people and adults beat the odds.  They stay in school, stay with families, find jobs and shun gangs.  But the numbers also point to problems.   

The U.S. Census counts 38% percent of the residents as living in poverty.  The unemployment rate is 16 percent.  By some estimates the school drop out rate among male African American teens has declined, but is still significantly higher than most other groups.

Police, community workers and Sister Jean point to another discouraging fact.   A growing number of single mothers are turning the raising of their children over to their grandmothers.  Sister Jean says the trend is deepening a cycle of poverty.  

"Each generation it's worse because now Grandma isn't educated to the point where she needs to be to continue the kind of work she needs, if she's going to handle this family that's already here."

Sister Jean and her colleagues also have a housing program for new residents in the neighborhood.   At an age when many step back from life's challenges, Thuerauf says she has no plans to stop the work she started three decades ago.