ATLANTIC CITY — A tiny coffee shop next to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission offers a welcoming place for residents to sit, relax or grab a cup of coffee at a very reasonable price.
“It’s pay what you want,” said Michael D’Aquilante, director of facilities for the Rescue Mission and the activist-in-residence at Stockton University.
A partnership between the Rescue Mission and Stockton, the Hopeful Grounds coffee shop developed from a walk D’Aquilante and Stockton’s former activist-in-residence Rona Whitehead took outside the mission one day last year.
“We wanted to talk and had to get away from the phone that kept ringing,” Whitehead said.
“We walked by the building and talked about how the front would be a perfect coffee shop, and maybe a way to do some job training,” D’Aquilante said.
Whitehead, who teaches a course at Stockton called Tools for Social Change, took the project to her class, which embraced it as community service, helping to raise money and staff the site. On Thursday a few students arrived with supplies they got at Walmart with proceeds from a bake sale.
The cafe is small, and the décor is simple but homey. The counter, made from wooden pallets, was built with help from a Mission resident with construction experience. There are several small tables for two with chairs, and a couple of arm chairs in the corner.
The coffee shop is open to the public, and neighborhood residents and workers are discovering its affordable fare.
Offerings depend on donations, which on a Thursday included jumbo muffins and croissants.
But it is also a place for residents of the Mission, or clients of the nearby John Brooks Recovery Center to take a break.
“Sometimes all people need is someone to talk to,” said Stockton student volunteer Juliana Murcia, 18, of Egg Harbor Township. “There is so much stigma to being homeless. A cup of coffee is a small thing, but it can make a big difference.”
City resident Stephanie Abdul Kabiir said she shops at the Rescue Mission thrift shop in the back of the building. She likes the cafe and said she gives what she can.
“I’d feel bad about just taking. You have to give back, too. That’s how you get blessed,” she said.
Shelby Boggs, 22, an employee of the Rescue Mission who also helps at the coffee house, said most people pay something, typically 50 cents or $1, change in their pocket. A few leave much more.
“We had one person leave $20,” she said. “That was unexpected.”
A Stockton grant of $750 paid for the coffee makers and some startup equipment, and some coffee companies have donated beans.
Whitehead said one of her students, Jessica Pazsko, is developing a food recovery program, picking up leftovers from Starbucks and Manhattan Bagel. Whitehead brought a couple trays of fresh fruit and pastries left over from a Stockton event.D’Aquilante said they would like to develop a network of businesses to regularly donate.
The cafe is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. The ability to keep it open through the summer or extend the hours will depend on the site’s ability to get more volunteers and donations.
“It really doesn’t take long to go through 1,000 coffee cups,” D’Aquilante said.
Customer Andrea Germanis said she would be willing to volunteer over the summer to help keep the cafe open. A former Showboat employee and occasional resident of the Rescue Mission over the last few years, she said while the mission is a tough place to live, the coffee shop is welcomed.
“I can see it being a safe place for people,” she said.
D’Aquilante said the goal is not to be a retail store but a safe haven for residents who can’t afford fancier coffee shops. He added a small bookshelf with books customers can take with them. On Thursday a local resident worked on his Bible study at one of the tables.
“We are not trying to be a business,” D’Aquilante said. “We are trying to be a blessing.”