Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB) trains Chinese orphans aged 17 to 23 in the art of French bakery and Chinese-style western pastry making. Thomas Meron is SYB’s Project Manager and, as the only full-time staff member, he coordinates SYB’s activities and volunteer base. I spoke with Thomas to find out what’s cooking at SYB (pun intended).
SVG: How did Shanghai Young Bakers get started?
Thomas Meron: The project idea started in 2008, but the first students arrived in 2009. Originally it was a project of the French Junior Chamber International—a group of young French people who start projects benefiting the community. The idea was simple. The founders, having spent a lot of time in China wanted to make something socially meaningful. They saw two things. The first was that the bakery market was booming, especially in big cities, the other was that China still has a lot of poverty and need. So from these two points they decided to start SYB. Because SYB was getting bigger, it separated from the Chamber at the beginning of 2010.
SVG: Besides yourself, who is on the SYB team?
TM: We have a team of around 10 active volunteers and many more who help out sporadically. It’s better known in the French community and among Chinese, but we have people from many countries. Volunteers are organized by clusters—some focus on the education part of the project, some on sponsorship, some on communications, and so on. They help especially with events organization, in dealing with partner hotels, and making people aware of what we do. They’re really the heart of the project. We’ve gotten all of our contacts, sponsors, and partners through volunteers.
SVG: How do you choose the orphans who join the program?
TM: There is a lot of poverty in China, but it’s hard to meet adequate people to join the program so we rely on three charity associations that work with orphans: Chi Heng Foundation, which deals mostly in provinces affected by AIDS so, of course, many people there are orphans; Half the Sky, which also deals with orphans throughout China; and Children of Madaifu, which works with children, not only orphans. We rely on these organizations because we are based in Shanghai so we cannot identify qualified young adults across China.
These three organizations follow the orphans in their care for a very long time and they can say—this guy is suitable for your program, he is motivated.
Each student must fit the age requirement, have a health certificate showing they don’t have any physical problems, have no crime record, and be a middle school graduate. Then they fill out an application form detailing their motivations and background.
TM: The training, I have to say, is quite demanding for them. Bakery work is physically challenging. You have to be patient and to focus on what you do. That’s why we need motivated students and associations to help us to identify them.
The program we offer is a one-year program in Shanghai, and it’s divided into two parts. Students study half of each month in the school and the other half in practical internships, mostly in five star hotels where they can put into practice what they learn in school.
They follow that pattern the whole year. For the first month they just study so they can get a minimum knowledge of baking and from the second month they begin their internship. They do that throughout the year. In China you don’t have this system. After six months to a year of only bakery school you go to work. It’s a little bit new for our partners, but for the students it’s very good because they can see both parts—what they will really do when they work and they can also have a strong background in baking techniques.
SVG: How many students are in each class?
TM: It’s around 20, but it depends on what kind of candidates we have. Last year we began with 26, but only 23 graduated. This year we have 20.
SVG: Coming mostly from the countryside it must be an adjustment for SYB students to come to Shanghai. How do you help them acclimate?
TM: They live at the Caoyang Vocational School dormitory (where their classes are held). Basically we provide everything when they are here—accommodation, insurance, money for food, transportation, and teacher salaries. Everything is covered by the money we receive from sponsors. When they arrive we have a kind of big team building session where we introduce them to the program and help them get to know each other and us as well. We also organize regular activities in Shanghai. At the beginning it’s hard–most of them never saw a big city before and they never took the subway.
When they have to go to their internship, we go with them on the subway and tell them you have to change here, take this line, etc. They’re not used to being independent. So they are totally lost in the beginning.
SVG: What is the makeup of your students?
TM: They could be from anywhere. For those from Chi Heng foundation, most come form Anhui and Henan. The other organizations send us students from all over China—from Hubei, Gansu, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Heilongjiang.
The population is about 50-50 girls to boys. To be honest, what the industry is demanding most are guys. It is very physical. Sometimes you have to carry heavy stuff–big flour bags, etc. But from the beginning we kept it 50-50, and it’s going really well.
SVG: Who teaches the courses?
TM: For the French bakery part, we have a professional French baker named Thomas Kalkhoven. And the really good thing is that he can speak Chinese. He’s really priceless because usually bakers don’t speak foreign languages very well. For the Chinese pastry part, we have a Chinese teacher teaching them. We also have a third course where we provide them with some academic courses in Chinese, English, and mathematics. Most of them graduated from middle school but not from high school so we provide academic courses so they can catch back up to the high school level. Our classes take place at the Caoyang Vocational School. They allocate a place for us.
TM: In fact, this is why we have the Chinese pastry courses, through this they can get an official diploma that is recognized in China. In fact, during the year, they take two exams in Chinese pastry for certification.
We are not officially a school since we are a charity program. So we give them a certificate, but it is not official and is only recognized if you know our program. For the academic programs they get a Zhongzhuan certificate. It’s an official diploma, better than the middle school certificate.
SVG: What do students do after they graduate from the program?
TM: When they graduate, they get their own accommodation. We help them to pay the deposit then they pay us back little by little.
It’s very easy for them to find a job if they stay in Shanghai because SYB is well known now in the baking industry. Every two weeks I receive a phone call from someone who is looking for bakers. So it’s really not an issue for them to find a job, either in big five star hotels, in bakeries or in western restaurants that have a bakery department. Some of the students decide to go back to their hometown. Sometimes they still have family there. For those ones, in fact they can find a job even in their hometown. All of our graduates have jobs.
SVG: How do you hope the program will grow?
TM: Currently, we are legally a program of Chi Heng Foundation. We decided to hand-over SYB to Chi Heng because we think there is a lot of synergy between Chi Heng foundation and us. Due to the special nature of our program, the management of our program is independent. So we work with them to help us get awareness among the media and raise funds.
In the future, our dream is to make SYB sustainable. We are planning to open a baking center of our own since we don’t have full access to our room at Caoyang Vocational School, and the equipment is not very adapted to what we want to do.
If we have this baking center, we can get a baking license and one day sell some of our production.
Another thing we want to develop is team-building activities to sell to companies. Companies and employees come and spend half a day to a day with students and learn baking with the students. I was in a big company before and all the big companies are always looking for team building activities. We have already had some smaller activities like this and it’s really fun. It would be a good way to raise money and would help us to cover costs. If we can turn SYB into something, not profitable, but breakeven, it would be very good.
For more information on Shanghai Young Bakers, visit their website here.