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New to Brewerytown: The Monkey & the Elephant Opens Its Doors, Trains Former Foster Youth

March 2, 2015 Category: Method

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A few weeks prior to the soft opening of The Monkey & The Elephant, a socially conscious cafe that employs and trains former foster youth, Lisa Miccolis, the cafe’s founder, was making to-do lists that stretched across the shop’s lengthy new coffee bar.

After two years as a pop-up, first at Taffets, in the Italian Market, and most recently at Impact HUB Philadelphia, The Monkey & The Elephant has secured a brick-and-mortar location in Brewerytown.

A team of volunteers worked alongside Miccolis for months to prepare the space, realizing her vision to secure a permanent home for The Monkey & The Elephant. It opened for business at 2831 Girard Avenue two weeks ago.

A total of five youth will work at the cafe. Naje, a 19-year-old who spent time in foster care during his adolescence, is one of them.

Since August, he has worked at The Monkey & The Elephant twice a week. Naje also holds down a second job mentoring youth.

“You don’t really get the type of support you get [from The Monkey & The Elephant] at a regular job,” he said. “[Lisa] actually cares about your future and she helps you out with the other things you like to do.”

In addition to employment — youth earn $9 an hour — The Monkey & The Elephant offers an eight-month program to help youth set goals, gain life skills, and cultivate a support network.

Challenges for youth in foster care

“The big challenge for these kids is that there has not been any stability,” said Elizabeth Wendel, a social worker trained to support children in foster care.

Wendel is also the volunteer assistant director for The Monkey & The Elephant. Youth who have been through the foster care system often have a trauma history, she said, and moving from one home to another — common for children in foster care — can make performing well in school difficult.

As a result, Wendel added, many foster youth “graduate without really having the knowledge and skills to be successful.”

From our Partners

Nationwide, approximately 400,000 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system, and in 2012, 23,396 of those youth aged-out. Nearly 25 percent did not have a high school diploma or GED, and nearly 40 percent had experienced homelessness.

In Pennsylvania, 806 youth between 18 and 21, otherwise known as the “aging out” period, exited foster care to a non-family setting between April 2012 and March 2013. That figure is the second highest in the last five years.

The Monkey & The Elephant is particularly focused on supporting youth who have left care, or aged out, but may not have the resources or support systems in place for success.

Whereas typical adolescents rely on social capital and the networks of their family and friends to get ahead, “kids in foster care don’t get social capital because they move around so much,” Wendel said.

To help them regain that capital, youth involved in The Monkey & The Elephant’s program learn hard skills, like how to budget and develop a resume. They are also encouraged to engage in therapy, spend time with a mentor, and get out of their comfort zones.

Youth often learn experientially, Miccolis said, visiting farmers’ markets and art museums and exploring parts of the city beyond their home neighborhoods. The idea is to get them “ready for the next step,” whether that means school, another job opportunity, or an internship.

A space fit for its mission

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The Monkey & The Elephant is a bright, airy space, with hardwood floors, intricate crown molding, and an exposed brick wall. The second floor loft provides an elevated vantage of the entire shop.

Miccolis strove to keep the cafe’s startup costs under $10,000, a sum that is tens of thousands less than average. To stay on budget, much of the interior decor is assembled from salvaged materials.

The coffee bar, for example, was scavenged from an equipment graveyard and retrofitted by a volunteer. Miccolis’s mother crafted a tile mosaic and most of the cafe’s equipment was donated.

“We’re absolutely bootstrapping,” Miccolis acknowledged. “We’ve gotten about $6,000 worth of equipment [donated] on top of the equipment that was here.”

Prior to The Monkey & The Elephant, which acquired the space in December, the cafe housed two Philadelphia-based coffee shops that did not stay long. The most recent, High Point Cafe, stuck it out for one year.

“We couldn’t hold out at that location,” said Meg Hagele, the owner of High Point Cafe. She cited slow foot traffic as one of the reasons for the closure. High Point also has two other locations in West Mount Airy.

Miccolis, however, is optimistic that The Monkey & The Elephant will fare better, and that its mission will gain the support of the community. Unlike its predecessors, the cafe is a nonprofit, meaning it can rely on other types of support, such as volunteer hours, grants and donations, which may subsidize the slim profit margins associated with selling coffee.

Hagele explained that in a growing market like Brewerytown, that kind of flexibility will be key.

“They have other ways of meeting their financial obligations than just selling coffee and pastries,” she said. “I think that’s how the space is going to hold out, serve that population, and wait for the businesses on the street to fill in.”

Images via Mo Manklang

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