Coffee ministry gives hope, one cup at a time
By Christie Sounart
Excuses were not going to rule Kaylee Soule’s life.
When she was released from jail after nearly five months in spring 2013, her peers told her she would not find a job as a convicted felon. Soule refused to believe them.
“I wanted to prove that all of those excuses are just that — excuses,” Soule, 26, says.
Within a month she was employed as a barista at Purple Door Coffee, a Denver-based ministry run by 26-year-old Madison Chandler and 27-year-old Mark Smesrud, which provides the coffee served to thousands of attendees each Sunday at Red Rocks Church. The company’s mission is to sustain and employ youth and young adults coming out of homelessness while giving them the opportunity to journey through a yearlong process of personal development.
Working at Purple Door has had a huge impact on Soule’s life. For seven years prior, she lived what many consider a “chronically homeless” life, she explains, with a background of crime and drug use, and she was only allowed to see her young daughter sporadically. Being employed at Purple Door was a way for her to gain responsibility and accountability, she says, and was a way for her to serve others.
“It makes me happy to make other people happy,” she says. “To give somebody a drink is definitely a way to serve someone.”
While employed at the café, she made the choice to work toward getting her GED and found an additional job in Denver as a vehicle transport driver. In spring 2015, Soule was one of five employees to successfully complete the yearlong curriculum at Purple Door.
“A giant leap of faith”
The vision for Purple Door Coffee began with an aspiration from Dry Bones Denver — a nonprofit focused on youth homelessness — to employ the youth they served. Chandler, from Jackson, Tenn., and Smesrud, from Minot, N.D., served as interns for the organization in 2009 and casually discussed what it would take for them to turn their love of coffee shops into a ministry. The conversation faded quickly but resurfaced when Chandler began another internship with Dry Bones in 2010.
“God made that part of my heart,” Chandler says. “It was one of those things that happened and I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
Chandler knew she was taking a giant leap of faith with her business idea, and she wanted Smesrud’s help.
It took Chandler three tries to convince him to move to Denver from his position as a youth minister in Dallas. When Smesrud arrived, the pair faced the gigantic task of fundraising their salaries in addition to seeking money to start their endeavor. They reached out to their communities and asked for small donations, which ranged from $20 to $100. Their largest ask was $25,000. Their goal was $250,000.
“It was a miracle,” Chandler says. “I look back on the numbers and still don’t know how it happened.”
With funding secured, they interviewed potential employees — many of whom lacked basic job seeking skills — and with input from Dry Bones, two young adult employees were hired, put on a payroll and trained. Purple Door Coffee opened its doors on April 15, 2013, and the team of four began their work.
Chandler and Smesrud were paired with an employee each who had experienced extreme life circumstances. Their goal was to teach them invaluable life, work and social skills in one year.
Today, each employee meets with Smesrud or a life coach three times a week to discuss personal hygiene, relationships, financial tips, coping skills and more. If an employee successfully completes the entire curriculum, he or she receives assistance in finding a new job in the community. Not everyone passes the curriculum, but the duo hopes they still make an impact while the person was there.
“We have to be intentional with how we define success for each employee,” says Chandler. “The amount of personal growth that has happened is pretty astounding.”
After four years, Chandler and Smesrud still fundraise their own salaries along with their recently added coffee bar manager, Katie Koehler.
“It’s less stressful than it used to be,” Chandler says. “But it is definitely still a stress. I have to put as much into that than I have to do working.”
Red Rocks helps success of enterprise
Red Rocks Church has helped alleviate some of their business strains. Last year, Eric Parks and a group of lead pastors held a meeting there and heard their mission. Soon, Parks asked if the church could use their coffee every week starting in May 2014.
“At the time, we needed more income,” Chandler says. “If it hadn’t been for that, we may not have made it to the next stage without Red Rocks. It was super influential for us.”
Today, Red Rocks Church orders 250 pounds of wholesale Purple Door coffee a month. Red Rocks serves about 1,000 cups of coffee each week to the Golden Campus alone, says Teresa Knight, who helps direct the church’s Café Team that consists of 230 volunteers giving about 55 hours each week to brew and serve the coffee at all three campuses.
The Purple Door café also has seen an increase in sales since the partnership, as Red Rocks attendees often will visit after trying their coffee at church.
“An unexpected joy for me was when customers and employees from totally different lives and backgrounds started building relationships organically,” Chandler says. “These natural relationships have broken down some barriers.”
What’s next for Purple Door?
The company is applying for its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and is looking at ways to create more job positions and possibly more cafes.
“I’m always moving and creating,” Chandler says.
Purple Door Coffee is located at 2962 Welton Street in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. Visit them at www.purpledoorcoffee.com.