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Citizen of the Week: Lisa Miccolis

Why a coffee shop owner is hiring and mentoring those who have aged out of the foster care system.

UPDATE: Since this story ran last fall, Miccolis has opened a brick-and-mortar coffee shop in Brewerytown, at 28th and Girard, and hired another three employees who are former foster kids. She also has two supervisors who help with training, mentoring and running the cafe. The Monkey & The Elephant now holds YouthQuake, a monthly open mic night with Apiary Magazine; monthly foster parent info sessions; and First Friday events for a rotating cadre of artists whose work hangs on the walls. Miccolis says business has been good, but also challenging—in addition to the normal strains of opening a new restaurant, Miccolis says her payroll is extra high to ensure all her employees get the shifts they need to complete the training program. The cafe is open 7 to 5 everyday.

Six years ago, when Lisa Miccolis took a trip to South Africa, she expected to experience a cultural awakening of sorts. She just never thought the trip would open her eyes to a cultural divide right here in Philadelphia.

Lisa Micollis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Elephant & The Monkey
Lisa Micollis, Founder & Execuitve Director, The Elephant & The Monkey

During her travels, Miccolis befriended Ephraim, a teenage boy at an orphanage who had left his home in Zimbabwe at 14 for a better education in South Africa. When he was 18, two things happened: South Africa revoked Ephraim’s refugee status, and he aged out of the orphanage. Already back home, Miccolis learned through email with him about his struggles to finish high school, to find a place to sleep, to stay in a country where he could be safe and successful. It was heart-wrenching—especially when Miccolis realized that she could do little to help Ephraim or others like him in South Africa. “I’m not from there, and have no support there, and don’t know how the system works,” she says. “My ability to enact some change in South Africa was limited. There wasn’t much point in trying to make a change there.”

Each year, 250 youth age out of Philly’s foster care system. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services,” says Miccolis.

Instead, Miccolis founded The Monkey & The Elephant to serve a similar population right here in Philadelphia: Each year, 250 youth age out of the foster care system in Philly with little or no support. Ninety-five percent have no source of income; one in three live below the poverty line; forty percent experience homelessness. Unsurprisingly, one in four end up incarcerated within two years. “There is nothing for these guys,” say Miccolis. “It is easier for a young man who has a drug and alcohol problem to get services, than for a young man who doesn’t.”

Miccolis envisions another path. A Wayne native, 30-year-old Miccolis spent seven years after college working in coffeeshops around the area, managing both the Milkboys in Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, and Town Hall Coffee in Merion. She loves everything about cafes: The community of regulars, the casual networking, the “vibe that naturally exists.” Now Miccolis has melded her love of coffeeshops to her desire to help former foster care kids. She launched The Monkey & The Elephant a year ago to be a coffeeshop whose baristas have all recently left foster care, and a nonprofit that will provide life skills training and social service help through an 8-month curriculum that Miccolis is currently developing.

In April, Miccolis received a $15,000 Social Innovation grant from Women’s Way to launch a pilot program with two young men, ages 19 and 22, who she hired to work with her at a pop-up coffee shop in Kensington co-working space ImpactHub, where their minimum wage salary helps to defray living costs. While teaching them to be baristas, Miccolis is also training the men in related job skills—speaking with customers, networking, working a register, handling money. She also is helping them plan for their futures. Training sessions include work with a financial planner to teach the men how to budget and save for college; help with the actual application process; and lessons in how to handle conflict, and how to get an apartment. Miccolis says she also has spent hours tutoring the men on their “personal elevator pitch”—helping them to shape their dreams and articulate them.

“No one has ever taught them how to present themselves,” she says. “When someone asks them what they do, they need to have more than just ‘I work in a coffee shop.’ One of them now says, ‘I am a barista at The Monkey & The Elephant; I work as a peer mentor; I’m interested in criminal justice; and I’m applying to college.”

She hopes to make The Monkey & The Elephant a cool and welcoming place to hang out for customers, served by baristas and managers who are all former foster care youth. And then she hopes to take the program national.

In the last year, Miccolis has worked with five former foster kids through The Monkey & The Elephant. She became an official nonprofit two months ago, and has launched a $70,000 fundraising campaign that would allow her to open a bricks and mortar coffeeshop in a space she’s located in Newboldt. She hopes to make it a cool and welcoming place to hang out for customers, who are served—eventually—by baristas and managers who are all former foster care youth. And then, she says, she hopes to take the program national.

“Ephraim made me recognize what it meant to not grow up the way I did—with a supportive family that helped me, in college and even after,” Miccolis says. “That changed my life. Now I want do the same for as many of these youth as I can.”

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