A unique café offers life skills to former foster youth

Photo by Palette Group - palettegrp.com 

Photo by Palette Group - palettegrp.com 

Serving the Community, One Espresso at a Time

by Emily Kovach

Consider the archetypal barista: too cool for school, perhaps tattooed, serving and pouring your coffee with no lack of mild disdain. But at The Monkey & The Elephant, a nonprofit coffee shop in Brewerytown, prepare for that image to be shattered. The shop employs former foster youth with the goal of offering job and life skills to adolescents who might otherwise struggle to acquire a foothold in the job market.

Founder and Executive Director Lisa Miccolis spent time in her own youth working as a barista, as well as for social engagement nonprofits such as AmeriCorps and YouthBuild. After a trip in 2008 to South Africa, where she met a teenage refugee from Zimbabwe who was faced with a loss of refugee status, Miccolis was inspired to help youth in similar situations in the U.S. The idea of a coffee shop just seemed to make sense, she says, because of the variety of life and job skills that coffee service entails, and “the community element of coffee shops... the community that each café creates naturally.” 

Six years and much research, planning and many pop-ups later, Miccolis hosted a pilot pop-up at the now closed Impact Hub in Kensington, which she sees as a touchstone for the development of the The Monkey & The Elephant. She remembers observing the two young men who were working side-by-side, making excellent cups of coffee and engaging easily with the customers. She knew she was really on to something. 

“Watching them then, and even observing our youth employees now as they support one another, get to know our customers and generally build positive relationships within the community is what it is all about,” she says. 

In 2015, M&E opened as a storefront café on West Girard Avenue in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Raising the capital for the buildout of the existing space was a feat, and they relied heavily on donations and grant money. A real challenge came in the form of trying to convey to potential donors how powerful their mission of helping foster youth could be. “As a new nonprofit, we had to be able to tell our story and educate people on the importance of investing in former foster youth, and in our organization,” she remembers.

Under the leadership team and a robust board of directors, M&E’s doors have been open for two and a half years. In that time, they’ve seen six youths “graduate” from the program with 100 percent postprogram employment and housing. Miccolis describes the graduation parameters: “Completion of programmatic exercises, which range from crafting and practicing using your personal elevator pitch, to budgeting, to walking around two different neighborhoods and noticing what looks and feels different... all of the exercises are aimed at building hard and soft skills, self-awareness and self-reflection, and creating opportunities for new experiences.” 

The shop, which serves a rotating list of local coffee roasters as well as standard café fare, is anything but ordinary. Every day behind its counters, lives are being shaped and changed. 

“We’re really looking at guiding our young people to build a strong foundation for themselves, so the changes we see while they are in the program may seem small to some,” Miccolis says. “We had one young man who was pretty soft-spoken when he started at M&E, and he set the goal of wanting to find his voice and speak up more often. Every time he does, I can’t help but smile.”