Meadowcreek High School’s principal, Dr. Tommy T. Welch, runs his school with the belief that students cannot become what they cannot envision.
“For a person’s ability to imagine,” he explains, “they need to be exposed to as many opportunities as possible. You need to go beyond the walls of the classroom.”
Meadowcreek High School students enrolled in the culinary internship program, led by Chef Simone Byron, do just that. Of the 300-plus students enrolled in the four-year culinary arts curriculum, select students qualify for an internship program their senior year.
Once a week, a dozen of them make their way to Coca-Cola, in cars sponsored by Flik Hospitality. There, they join the ranks of the Coca-Cola Dining team, who manages the dining services at the company’s Atlanta headquarters.
There, the students work alongside foodservice professionals to prepare meals and manage catering systems through a curriculum designed by the Coca-Cola Dining Management team.
The opportunity is more than a paid internship that provides meaningful exposure to the foodservice industry; it's also an avenue to imagine, with greater optimism, future possibilities.
More than 85 percent of Meadowcreek’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch; 60 percent of the school’s population is Hispanic, and 18 percent African-American.
For many of the Meadowcreek interns, walking through the doors of the Coca-Cola headquarters for the first time was also the first time they saw someone who looked like them holding a briefcase.
That moment of recognition is, in large part, the reason Chef Byron began the culinary internship program in partnership with Thompson Hospitality, the largest minority-owned food and facilities management services company in the country, who helped connect the school to Coca-Cola Dining services.
“You can see the lights flickering on, one by one," Byron said. "Going into Coca-Cola and seeing someone whose skin looks just like theirs, they realize they can do it, too. They’re three or four feet taller than when they first walked through that door.”
To prepare them to enter a corporate environment, Chef Byron’s students also learn financial literacy and professional business conduct. Deirdre Cox, president of Community Sustainability Enterprise, provides this soft skills training, sponsored by Brand Mortgage.
“We teach them how to integrate into the private sector,” Cox explains. “These are low-income, high-potential students. This program shows them that they don’t have to be their zip code... they can do anything they want.”
Cox feels moved by the transformation of the students, who no longer respond to adults with timidity but instead the confidence of someone who has tapped into their own potential.
“You see them begin to own their life when you show them what could be,” she says.
The students sense this change in self, as well.
Mateo Hernandez, 18, entered the culinary program during his first year of high school, when he dreamed of becoming a professional skateboarder. Through the program and his subsequent internship, he now plans to pursue a college degree in hospitality management and one day open a restaurant of his own.
“I entered the program as someone who didn’t want to take initiative because I was afraid of failure," Hernandez said. "Now I am responsible. I’m not afraid to take commitments. I am prepared for the world”
Carlos Barboza, 18, agrees. “I was a bit timid," he said. "I didn’t talk too much. Now, I’m taking ownership for my Coca-Cola internship, my grades, schoolwork…”
Chef Byron is proud of her student’s growth. “I wanted to make sure they knew how feasible their success was,” she says. “Them doing well and being a part of Coca-Cola… they know.”
Coca-Cola, in turn, is excited by the development of the students.
“Their growth is important to us as the food service industry continues to evolve,” says Kristine Mosley, Coca-Cola’s Food and Beverage Manager. “As The Coca-Cola Company, we want to raise the industry’s bar and encourage new talent who is dedicated to food not just as a job, but as a passion.”
Seeing the students interact directly with Coca-Cola employees is a passion of Mosley’s and a point of pride among her colleagues.
“The success story for us at Coca-Cola isn’t just that they go through this program and are ultimately hired,” she explains. “It’s that these students begin to understand who they are and where they want to go. We are excited to be a part of that journey.”