CUPs Coffeehouse founder Brian Gray teaches young adults they CAN make a difference.
When adolescents enter CUPs Coffeehouse in Southwest Baltimore, they are served more than just a sweltry, caffeinated beverage. Owners Brian and Holly Gray provide them with tools for a successful life.
In 2012, the couple opened Creating Unlimited Possibilities – CUPs – to empower at-risk youth. Through their flagship program ‘I CAN,’ the couple teaches employees ages 16-24 transferable work and life skills, and allows them to develop leadership qualities, and customer service experience. Serving more than 1,500 people per year, the nonprofit also allows individuals to obtain a ServSafe Food Manager certification.
“Partly what happens for these communities that are at-risk, is the opportunity to acquire some of the basic training skills, they never get,” Brian said. “What we find is, even as adults, people don’t have conflict management skills, resume writing skills, interview skills, or even multi-tasking skills – basic skills that we take for granted.”
The Grays have always possessed a desire to help others. Initially, Brian planned to conceive a hospital for at-risk families, and provide them with health care at cost. When the duo formed CUPs in conjunction with a final project for Holly’s college portfolio class, they decided to focus on creating jobs in their neighborhood, which carries a 19 percent unemployment rate.
“We both have this desire to help those less fortunate, or those that weren’t afforded the same opportunities that we’ve had,” Brian acknowledged. “We were both raised in families that promoted helping the community, helping people and helping the world around you.”
Even though the Grays want to assist all local young men and women, there are certain philosophies they adhere to when hiring employees.
“We can’t help you if you don’t help yourself, and don’t want to help yourself,” Brian said. “That’s one of the underlining premises that Holly and I attempt to share with the employees. They have to want it as much as we want it for them, or it’s a lost cause.”
For those that buy into the philosophy, the rewards are gratifying. Most participants witness a huge growth in confidence. Lawrence Harp, 28, joined the coffeehouse six months ago. A catering director and manager, he said the lessons he attained at the nonprofit coffeehouse will help him in future positions.
“I believe the skills I learned at CUPs will transfer because … we live in a diverse world,” Harp said. “It’s not just one set of people you’re going to have to deal with your entire life. CUPs brings everybody together with a shared common cause. I now want to do things, not for financial gain, but to benefit the community instead of solely myself.”
Imparting those types of values is one of the reasons Brian received a BMe Leadership Award in 2013. BMe (pronounced “Be Me”) is a community that regards black men as assets to society. In Baltimore BMe is funded by the Open Society Foundations. BMe also operates in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Heinz Endowment.
In addition to the ‘I CAN’ initiative, CUPs offers a ‘Once Upon A Time’ book club for kids, an open mic night, arts and craft classes and community game nights. Eventually, the co-owners may branch out to include ages 16-45. Hosting events has allowed the eatery to become a hub for the community, but Brian still maintains his vision for CUPs as a place where disadvantaged youth can learn new skills.
“How do you really learn to do something?” Brian opined. “You really learn to do something by doing it over and over again, and mastering it.”
BMe Storyteller Zach Sparks is a writer for the Severna Park Voice, Pasadena Voice and Arundel Voice. He is a former freelance contributor for the Baltimore Sun newspaper.
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BMe Community’s Everyday Stories campaign aims to collect and share the authentic stories of black men who make our communities stronger. The campaign’s goal is to make sure these true stories of black men as assets echo through the media and across the Web. These stories are not hard to find. Everyday Stories is a vehicle for change-makers of all races and genders to lift up and join in the positive change black men are leading.
This article originally appeared on BMeCommunity.org under the title: Brian Gray Teaches Young Adults They CAN Make A Difference
Photo: C. Norris