Mixing kids and coffee is typically ill advised, but in the case of Brian and Holly Gray, the combination has yielded pleasant results.
Last August the couple opened Creating Unlimited Possibilities — CUPs — Coffeehouse in Southwest Baltimore's Hollins Market community to give disconnected youth a chance to gain basic job and life skills.
Like the Rev. C.W. Harris, who was profiled in a previous Sun article, their work was awarded a $15,000 grant by BMe (Black Male Engagement) for its contributions to the city.
The idea for the nonprofit coffeehouse was generated as a final project for Holly's college portfolio class as she pursued a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies.
The couple liked their creation so much, they signed the lease on the day Holly graduated from the University of Baltimore. Adding to the duo's expertise in helping at-risk adolescents, Brian Gray received his bachelor's degree in psychology and master's in conflict resolution and mediation, both from George Mason University. He has also studied business at Notre Dame of Maryland University.
"We lived in the neighborhood for almost 11 years and saw the tremendous need to provide kids with a platform to thrive and be successful," Holly, 36, said of the area, which has a 19 percent unemployment rate. "Brian has a lot of out-of-the-box ideas for how to make things work, and this neighborhood requires that. He's the finance and the idea behind CUPs, whereas I handle the day-to-day operations working with young adults."
The goal behind CUPs is simple: to employ and empower at-risk youth, turning them into financially independent leaders within their communities who will have the tools to succeed after their employment at CUPs ends.
To reach this goal, the Grays started the "I Can" project for youths ages 16 to 24. The initiative provides enrichment courses in which volunteers teach participants how to write resumes, build interview skills, gain financial literacy, develop leadership attributes and strengthen communication, customer service and conflict resolution skills. Employees are also given the opportunity to achieve a ServSafe Food Manager certification.
"My vision for CUPs has been to reach out to more youth and community members as we grow, making sure they are involved in everything that's happening from here to a cleanup project that's outside," said Brian, 36. "We have a 'Once Upon A Time' book club for kids, an open mic night, arts and crafts classes and other projects. We're being blessed by the youth that work here and the community every day."
The experience has been rewarding for the Grays and for their employees.
Jemarr Smith, 20, said he struggled with speaking to customers when he joined CUPs as a barista. After months of training — he calls it "Holly's boot camp" — he gained confidence, improved people skills and was promoted to a managerial position.
"When I started I didn't associate with anyone. I just gave the customers their bags," he said. "I learned to speak up and start conversations. I earned that promotion. It makes me feel like someone special, and that's what CUPs does for everyone."
Molly Fowler, 17, joined CUPs when it opened last August. Her training helped her get a job at Zellas Pizzeria.
"The customer service skills and the sanitary law stuff I learned will help at Zellas because I know how things should be run from my experience at CUPs even though everyone has a different business style," Fowler said. "I look up to Mrs. Holly like a mother figure, and Brian is helpful too."
Holly says most kids demonstrate a desire to succeed but may lack confidence or social skills.
"I can work with just about anything from lack of self-esteem, to no work experience, to not having confidence," she said. "We can teach those things. I can't teach someone if they're not ready to invest in themselves."
The couple plans to open a second CUPs location at some point and to start a mentorship program in partnership with the University of Baltimore in October. All CUPs employees and 20 other community members will receive one-on-one mentorship from volunteers.
It's all part of a vision that wouldn't be possible without help from volunteers and donations.
"The financing is a hurdle, but I think we can overcome that hurdle," Brian said. "The goal of our fundraising is to make CUPs more than a dream by turning it into a plausible vision where the potential of our young adults can be fulfilled."