This post is part of an ongoing series on Shine presented by Rally.org, the crowdfunding site for social good. Rally explores thousands of user stories to find and share with you their most inspiring examples of people helping people across the country and around the world.
Lisa Miccolis (right) works with former foster youth Michell Belo at the Monkey and the Elephant's pop-up coffee …
For Lisa Miccolis the path to working with former foster kids in Philadelphia began with safari animals...and coffee.
Lisa, the founder and president of the non-profit organization and coffee shop the Monkey and the Elephant, got the name from a secret code she started using several years ago, after a trip to South Africa. In October 2008, bringing little more than her clothes and her camera, she visited a friend who had been living in Cape Town and owned a bakery there. Lisa hung out at her friend's bakeshop, chatting with workers and customers and eventually connecting with Homestead Projects for Street Children, a local non-profit that works to get boys off the streets of Cape Town. Homestead thought her photography skills might be useful, so she agreed to meet with the staff and the boys living at its shelter.
"I went to the orphanage and saw a young man sitting at a desk with a journal and a pen," Lisa recalled. "The staff told me, 'Oh, that's Ephraim. He's writing his life story,'" a life story that soon became enmeshed with hers.
Ephraim Ntlamo left his home country of Zimbabwe at the age of 14 to seek a better education. He was 16 when he sat down next to Lisa and introduced himself at a soccer match between other Homestead boys.
"He asked me a bunch of questions: Why was I taking pictures, where was I from, geography questions I couldn't even begin to answer," she said. "We developed a friendship and would look for opportunities to meet at my friend's café to talk. He even asked me to help him edit his life story!"
Flash forward to 2011: Lisa was back in Philadelphia, walking around town with copies of her resume in search of employment. She got hired as a barista at a café half a block from her apartment. Funny thing was, she rarely drank anything that even tasted like a cappuccino or espresso.
"At that point I did not like coffee," she said, laughing. "I thought it was pretty gross. I'd do lots of milk, a little bit of coffee, and sugar."
Just some of the toasty, aromatic options that the Monkey and the Elephant has provided.
Lisa decided to spend time learning more about the beans and the brew from a coworker who was something of a coffee ambassador to customers. She also stayed in touch with Ephraim, who recently aged out of South Africa's foster-care system and had no solid support system. He briefly returned to Zimbabwe to renew his refugee status, though going home was dangerous; he had very publicly voiced disapproval for the Zimbabwean government, raising awareness about corruption and even getting some press coverage for his activism.
"Whenever I heard from him, he would text me from a different number," Lisa said. "He couldn't say much about his plans because he was being followed."
During brief calls they would confirm each other's identity with a simple question: "I would ask him what his favorite animal was. His was the elephant. And mine was the monkey.
"He's such a large inspiration, so it was important to me to honor that when I came up with the name for the café."
Lisa is fundraising on Rally.org for the Monkey and the Elephant, her mentoring organization and coffee shop assisting former foster youth in Philadelphia. From last November to June, it operated every Saturday as a pop-up spot at a bakery in the Italian Market neighborhood. She's now getting ready to launch at a permanent location where they'll serve coffees and teas, and she needs $20,000 to purchase the necessary equipment (a commercial-grade espresso machine alone runs about $10,000). Employing those who have aged out of the foster care system, she hopes to connect them with counseling, housing, and mentors from the community as they work toward independent lives. It's a coffee shop that cares.
"Having a café where we can give youth the opportunity to learn job skills, customer service, communication, and leadership skills, and allow them to be supported in that community, will give them the foundation they need to do whatever it is they want and to do it successfully," Lisa said.
"They'll always be welcome to come back to The Monkey and The Elephant for advice, a listening ear, help with bumps along the way. It's not just when you're working with us in the cafe, but ultimately a lifelong relationship."
Considering how much Lisa hated coffee when she started learning how to make and serve it, it's surprising that she'd want to open up a java spot. But to her, heading in this professional direction makes perfect sense.
"It's less about coffee and more about the community that exists at your local coffee shop," she said. "Getting up at 6 a.m. is all well and good, but to do that to give someone the jump they need to start the day, talk to them about how their weekend was: that was more the driving force behind why I got out of bed."
She has met mentors along her cafe journey, brainstorming and asking for guidance about how to form the purpose behind the Monkey and the Elephant. She's still in contact with many of those who gave her advice-and with her young friend in South Africa, too.
Ephraim still lives in Cape Town and serves as ambassador for the non-profit Refugee 6 Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of refugee children in South Africa. He continues sharing his life story on his blog, and despite an unstable living situation, Lisa said his spirits are high and he's optimistic about his future.
And did Lisa ever learn to love coffee? Emphatically yes. She now takes her coffee black.
To learn more about the Monkey and the Elephant, including how to get a free cup of artisanal brewed coffee, go to rally.org/themonkeytheelephant.