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Riding a longboard to work wasn’t Jesse Bergrussell’s ideal mode of transportation, but, grateful to be employed, he spent two months skating from his downtown Santa Rosa apartment to a job across town at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country.

Then, something happened that 20-year-old Bergrussell had never thought possible. He was able to buy a used 2003 Saturn Ion that also wasn’t his ideal ride, but it was far better than longboarding to work.

Today the enterprising young man has a new liquid-silver 2015 Mazda 3, a symbol of hard work, money-management skills, stability and responsibility.

“I never thought I’d have a car, let alone a new car,” said Bergrussell, a graduate of Tips 2 Succeed, a Santa Rosa-based program that trains at-risk youth for hospitality jobs at restaurants, hotels and wineries.

Raised in and out of foster care since he was 10, Bergrussell lived for six years at Plumfield Academy in Sebastopol before starting out on his own with a part-time job as a receptionist that paid $500 per month.

“I was limited as to what I could do. I had to worry about the next move, and it was really stressful,” he said.

The young man relied on food stamps and lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before learning about the tuition-free Tips 2 Succeed program.

Things changed when he learned about the tuition-free Tips 2 Succeed program, which works in conjunction with nonprofit partners Social Advocates for Youth, TLC Child and Family Services and Voice Our Independent Choices for Emancipation, agencies that help teens and young adults exit the foster care system.

Tips 2 Success complements the counseling, transitional housing and support services by offering a pathway to employment. Owners, managers and wait staff from within the Sonoma County hospitality industry serve as guest lecturers to help train participants, make connections and conduct mock interviews.

“I was very eager to do my best,” Bergrussell said. “Otherwise I was passing up an opportunity that may never happen.”

The 14 two-hour workshops, spread over seven weeks, cover everything from customer service and interpersonal skills to best practices for job searching and interview etiquette. Training sessions are offered twice a year for up to 25 students.

Bergrussell attended the pilot program last summer and graduated with a certificate of completion and a food handler’s certification. He quickly made the first step toward his goal by taking a part-time entry-level job at Stark’s Steaks & Seafood in Santa Rosa, working as a polisher to assure sparkling silverware and stemware. He later moved up to a full-time job at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country as a room-service server, covering seven separate buildings and now works as a banquet server and day shift server at the hotel’s Nectar restaurant..

In April, he landed a second job as an evening server assistant at Valette, the new upscale restaurant in Healdsburg.

“I was really thankful I came across Tips 2 Succeed,” Bergrussell said. “These doors are opening for me that never would have.”

He credits Deanne Trombetta Marbach, the program’s founder and executive director, and co-founder and director Kathy Wright with giving him the encouragement and direction he needed. Equal credit goes to Mary Schiller, a certified culinary instructor at Maria Carrillo High School who conducts the Tips 2 Succeed workshops.

“They really opened the door for me and took me under their wing from the get-go,” Bergrussell said. “They took me in and polished me up and showed me the ropes.”

In addition to learning practical workplace skills, he benefited from knowing that people were on his side and cheering for his success.

“Just to know that there were three lovely women who would take the time to help, I don’t have enough things to say what that means to me,” he said. “I still wonder where I’d be if I didn’t attend this class.”

Marbach says Bergrussell was an ideal student, willing to learn and so eager to succeed that Hilton employees named him employee of the month for January.

“He has so much potential,” she said. “It’s hard not to like Jesse. He’s one of those kids you’re drawn to. It’s just so heartwarming to see the change in him.”

Humbled by those who helped him along the way, Bergrussell is now optimistic about his future.

“I hope to move up in the restaurant industry and really make a name for myself,” he said.

For more information about the training series that begins June 29, visit tips2succeed.org.

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