In November 2012, coffee shop entrepreneur Lisa Miccolis’s dream became a reality. Through grants and crowd funding campaigns, she started several pop-up coffee shops where she could provide job and life skills training to former foster youth.
In August 2014, Miccolis moved The Monkey & The Elephant into a pre-existing Philadelphia coffee shop location that became available for lease.
The Monkey & The Elephant provides professional, relationship and communication skills to former foster youth during an eight-month employment period. Today, five employees who previously lived in care work at the café and complete 10 required exercises to build networking, self-awareness and relationship skills. Miccolis and two supervisors train and mentor the employees.
Creation of The Monkey & The Elephant was inspired by an orphaned African boy named Ephraim who Miccolis met while volunteering abroad. He was alone and no longer eligible for social support services.
Miccolis was stunned to learn that this lack of support for foster youth transitioning to adulthood is common throughout the world. She was determined to use her skills to do something about it, and, thus, The Monkey & The Elephant was born.
After nearly three years of operation, Miccolis shares some lessons she’s learned about launching a post-foster care training program:
Shorter Is Not Sweeter
“I wanted my program to help participants make lasting life changes and didn’t feel the typical six- to 18-week job training program was long enough to do that. The Monkey & The Elephant provides an eight-month program, but it doesn’t sit well with former foster youth to go through something and have it end.
‘After eight months we are just done?’ was asked a lot during interviews. We are now working on an alumni program. It is my hope that past participants will have such a connection to us that they’ll want to stay involved, possibly becoming mentors to the next cohort, coming to us when they need support as well as to share successes.”
Candidate Selection Is Tricky
Miccolis doesn’t interview potential employees for standard attributes like punctuality and accountability.
“It’s not your typical interview. These kids haven’t had guidance like the rest of us. They are here to develop skills. This makes candidate interviewing and selection more difficult. It’s really about probing to find out who is truly ready to receive the training we provide versus who is not.”
“In the beginning, employees would be late because they were working on real life problems. We needed very committed supervisors who were ready to provide backup as we got employees to grasp what it means to be part of a team. Training needs to emphasize how something like punctuality impacts co-workers and the business.”
Buy-in from customers also helps. Regular customer Erinn Kober recalls:
“In the beginning it was hit or miss. The staff was raw. Sometimes the muffins didn’t taste right. I wouldn’t have tolerated this from a Starbucks, but once I knew The Monkey & The Elephant’s mission, I had more patience because I wanted them to succeed. Today I recommend The Monkey & The Elephant to everybody.”
Atypical Employee Management
While most workplaces separate the professional from the personal, Miccolis also helps employees deal with anger issues, housing instability, child custody decisions, and the like. Also, in an environment set up to allow for mistakes, establishing boundaries and consequences is not as straightforward.
“We can’t just let an employee make the same mistake over and over. Together we established operating ‘norms’ so the youth can encourage each other, but also police each other’s compliance.”
Long-Term is a New Concept
“When people are in survival mode, they are not thinking and planning for the long term. This comes up when training about the need for consistent product quality and customer service. They must learn that if they do either poorly even once, it can come back to hurt them and the business.
When coaching employees on long-term planning such as saving for housing expenses, I encourage thinking in smaller time increments. I tell them, ‘This might not be what you are thinking about now, but let’s talk about how to do this for one month.”
Trust Will Be An Issue
The experiences that bring children to foster care often lead to a distrust of others.
“At a surface level, it may seem that they trust us, but I look deeper. When someone is particularly buddy-buddy with me, I want to make sure what they are feeling is genuine. If they don’t fully trust us, we need to work on that. I’ve also learned to ask more questions to get to the root cause of what they are saying.”
Engage the Community
The casual atmosphere of a coffee shop lends itself to relationship building among the employees and customers. Customers have helped youth network for other jobs and given advice on where to get things they need or find places to live.
Lending a supportive ear isn’t just a one-way street. A twenty-two-year-old employee who goes by the name Joseph THC said, “I love the atmosphere. Someone can be having a bad day, and they come in here and share with us what is bothering them. I talked to one customer for over an hour about her life.”
“This opportunity touches my soul,” said THC, who within five months has made two friends from the café that he spends time with outside of work hours.
Miccolis discovered that most funding for foster youth programs excludes those who have aged out of care. Funders also seek to support organizations that demonstrate a large impact.
“Saying ‘In two years, 10 kids won’t need public assistance any longer,’ isn’t enough to compete for funding. We are figuring out how to measure our larger impact to access more traditional funding streams. We’re always looking for more partners and donors.”
Find a Partner
“If I had to do it over again, I would find an organization with a shared vision to partner with in order to do things faster. I just haven’t found that organization yet.”
Celebrate Small Successes
“There have been times I’ve questioned my ability and capacity to keep going. I have a strong support system, and I celebrate moments rather than look for huge wins. For example, witnessing an employee finally start to let people in and ask for support is very gratifying.”
Twenty-year-old employee Naje Taylor wants everybody to know about The Monkey & The Elephant so the program will grow. “A lot of the statistics on foster youth are negative. Imagine how many people could benefit from a program like this. I was lucky to get involved.”
Miccolis aims to perfect her business model to expand into more U.S. cities. Readers who wish to donate or learn more about The Monkey & The Elephant can visit: http://themonkeyandtheelephant.org.
Leah Burdick is an adoptive mom and founder of the Foster Coalition, a group that advocates for and works to elevate the national consciousness about foster care.