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A cozy, tasty, neighborly weekend brunch spot isn't hard to find in Sonoma County, but don't bother looking for another place like Evelyn Cheatham's.

No one on the staff of her oddly named cafe near Santa Rosa's Montgomery Village gets paid, including herself. And diners aren't given checks.

Patrons of Worth Our Weight -- more commonly called WOW -- are invited, once they finish their fresh pastries, fruit, hearty entrees and custard-cup desserts, to leave a donation.

Good food is served to patrons at Cheatham's culinary apprentice restaurant, open only Saturdays and Sundays. But Worth Our Weight's primary reason for being is to serve the children of neglect who come there for hands-on instruction in food preparation, table-waiting and the essential skills of life.

"My main thing is to keep them off the streets," Cheatham said.

She knows that the under-served teens and young adults trained by her and her volunteers are less liable to become homeless or incarcerated if they learn restaurant and catering work. WOW training focuses also on the fundamentals key to remaining employed in any occupation: showing up on time, working conscientiously, conducting oneself courteously and professionally.

"I want to show them that work is the pathway to success," said Cheatham, passionate and gentle-natured at 57.

The instruction for her trainees, aged 16 to 24, starts out at a most basic level. When they enroll at WOW, some have seldom if ever eaten at a real restaurant, perhaps not even at a family table. Few have experienced wholesome and natural ingredients, much less cooked anything with them.

There is no typical trainee at WOW. Some are on their own after turning 18 and being cut loose from foster care. Some have committed crimes and are on probation, or were. Others struggle with learning disabilities or the absence of responsible parents and normal familial love and support.

"There are kids here who are starving, literally starving," Cheatham said. "They are society's throwaways, but they are so precious."

She said that since she first worked with seriously challenged teens at the county's live-in Probation Camp a decade ago, she's learned that often under the tough exteriors are innocent, inexperienced kids eager to learn from and blossom for adults who show them some interest and care.

"They are worth their weight in gold," she said. Thus, the name of her cafe.

Cheatham started the nonprofit culinary program in 2006 as a catering company in Windsor. Prior to then, the San Francisco native and daughter of a gourmet-cook mom ("I had pheasant sandwiches in my lunchbox") had worked at upscale restaurants and owned her own Mendocino Avenue bakery-cafe, Tweets. She'd assumed that her lifelong interest in creating good food would culminate in her becoming an executive chef at some fine hotel.

That presumption went into the compost pile when she was invited a decade ago to create and operate a culinary training program for young male offenders at the Sonoma County Probation Camp off Eastside Road.

She remembers her initial steely reception. "There were all these boys, sitting outside, staring at me." It occurred to her to walk back to her car and leave. Instead she said, "How are you?"

"Their faces broke into grins, and they're just kids," she said.

She was astonished to learn that most of the boys knew nothing about food. More sadly, many had never experienced the common, human pleasure of a nice meal out or a holiday feast shared around a family table.

"I fell in love with those kids," she said. "I learned so much about young people at risk."

Cheatham didn't pry into the boys' lives but learned through conversation that the childhoods of many consisted of harrowing abuse, neglect and deprivation.

The thought occurred to her that if she'd grown up with that, she'd probably have struck out and gotten herself arrested, too. Teen violence such as the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School made more sense to her.

The bolt-like realization came to her that she wanted to do more with kids saddled with dim prospects for life because the culture had decided they were beyond care.

She created Worth Our Weight as a nonprofit and invited a group of engaged community members onto its board of directors. She opened an apprentice catering service in Windsor. Finding after a short while that she wanted to introduce the trainees to restaurant work, she created a cafe in a former ice cream parlor on Santa Rosa's Third Street.

WOW moved in mid-2008 to a spot on Hahman Drive, next to the Santa Rosa Boys and Girls Club and up the block from Montgomery High. The operation survives on donations and occasional fundraisers. Cheatham takes no salary but lives simply on what she earns teaching part-time in the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

"This is a healing place," she said at a table in her bright and lively cafe.

"You can do a lot of healing in the kitchen. What's there? There's love and there's food."

What more does a kid need?