Sometimes a hot dog is just an afternoon snack, and sometimes it can change the course of your life.
Such is the case at That’s My Dog, a hot dog restaurant run by teenagers in Montgomery, Ala. Teenagers run the cash registers, order the supplies, manage scheduling and payroll, oversee maintenance and customer service, comply with food safety regulations, and of course, make hot dogs.
In return, they get paid, have a fun place to hang out after school and on weekends, and gain valuable career skills that complement the math and English lessons they’re learning in school.
“This place pretty much saved my life,” said Jason Bailey, 16, a student worker at That’s My Dog. “I started here less than a year ago, and now I’m a site manager. It’s definitely inspired me, given me focus, motivation. I know what I want to do with my life now.”
Located in a former church, That’s My Dog is painted in bright patterns of red, black, and white, and outfitted with vintage video games, a stage for live music and karaoke, a pool table, and piano. On one pillar is a collage of Post-It note “coupons” for free hot dogs donated by customers.
That’s My Dog is a great example of XQ’s Learner Goals and Design Principles in action, showcasing how students can use real-world experience to enhance what they learn in the classroom, and how community partners can work with schools to benefit students. In the process, students are engaged, gain exposure to career options, and gain a renewed interest in school
That’s My Dog is a program within That’s My Child, a nonprofit that offers tutoring, arts classes, job training, library, and other services for young people in Montgomery. The program is open to everyone, but the majority of participants are African-American and come from low-income families in the Chisolm and North Montgomery neighborhoods.
Founded in 2012 by Montgomery resident Charles Lee, That’s My Child has served more than 800 young people in Montgomery. Many have graduated from high school, joined the military, or enrolled in college as a result of their experiences at the center, said program director Jason Brooks.
“Poverty is tough, but kids are the hardest hit,” Brooks said. “We ask ourselves, how do we give kids an edge? Put kids at the forefront? Give them the skills they need to succeed? It doesn’t just help the kids, it helps the entire community.”
Lee has been hailed a community hero by the Montgomery Advertisernewspaper for his work. Formerly incarcerated for selling drugs, Lee was inspired to change his life after he was released from prison and opened a hot dog stand in Montgomery. The stand was so successful, and he was so determined to help others, he used the profits to create That’s My Child. The nonprofit is now supported by donations, partnerships with local businesses and government, and revenue from That’s My Dog.
The center came along at just the right time for Jason Bailey. The gangly, shy teenager, who lives mostly with his grandmother, had been bullied in middle school and was growing increasingly disinterested in school — and life in general, he said. He had seen friends shot and his family endure ongoing hardships, and he hadn’t given much thought to his future.
“School just wasn’t for me. I wanted to drop out,” he said.
A friend brought him to That’s My Child, and he was immediately interested. He enrolled in the center’s three-week intensive entrepreneur class and learned real-world applications for all the math, social studies and English classes he was taking in school. The course covers topics like financial planning, food safety, stress management, and organization, as well as career skills like preparing a resume, learning Word and Excel, filling out job applications, and cultivating communication skills.
He quickly rose through the program and is now a manager of That’s My Dog, where he says he’s learned accountability and responsibility, and made plenty of friends along the way. He does his homework at the center every afternoon, his grades are up, and he’s on track to graduate. After high school, he plans to enlist in the military, go to college, and become a police officer.
Working with That’s My Dog is helping Jason in immediate ways, and in planning for the future. “Now I have money for food, gas, necessities,” he said. “Plus I save half my paycheck.”
That’s My Dog has an infectious, positive energy according to Aretha Dix, a retired Air Force major who volunteers at the center. It’s more than a great place for local young people to hang out and build community, it also provides much needed, reasonably-priced food in an area without many food options. Dix hopes to get a garden started soon so students can expand the menu to include a few healthy items. In the meantime, That’s My Dog fills a crucial need in the community.
“Kids are learning so much here — communication, problem-solving, leadership, a sense of belonging,” she said. “It’s so inspiring, it makes you want to pour more and more into it.”