After some challenging years, Coffee Connection is optimistic about its future. The coffee roaster and cafeteria, a nonprofit organization that works with women in recovery, had to close a location as it struggled to manage a funding gap during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The location at 681 South Ave. underwent a facelift in July and hosted a grand reopening event last weekend.
“We had applied for a grant and that’s what prompted (the remodel),” says Erica Nicole Abbott, who manages the cafe and is a human resources and office manager at Coffee Connection. “We just wanted something fresh, something clean.”
Founded in 2001 as Woman’s coffee connection, the organization began as a cafe and workplace for women recovering from addiction. The cafeteria achieves its goals by creating jobs and training women for sustainable employment.
The cafe was given new life in November 2011 when Joy Bergfalk replaced the previous director, Nancy Sawyer-Molina. The organization was about to close.
Sawyer-Molina had called Bergfalk to say, “’Don’t make any more connections for me, because I think we’re closing,’” Bergfalk recalls.
“I (answered), ‘I don’t think so,’ which was one of the craziest things I’ve ever said,” he adds.
Bergfalk had helped found Project Empower in 2006, with the help of nonprofits. Resources to listen to life. He merged Project Empower with Coffee Connection when he assumed leadership.
Bergfalk offers support to women by taking a humanistic approach to addiction. She sees the women in the organization as people and not as clients.
“I will never call them clients unless I have to write something professionally,” says Bergfalk.
She has a strong sense of empathy, which began at a young age.
“I’m a clergyman (and) my specialty is trauma,” says Bergfalk, who has an M.D. from Bethel Seminary-St. Paul in Minnesota and worked as a pastor for a period of more than four decades. “I started collecting traumatized animals when I was five years old, and then in third grade I read a little book called ‘Runaway Slave’ about Harriet Tubman and learned about human evil.”
Since then, he has spent his life studying trauma and how it affects people.
“So a quest for me has always been, why do people do what they do? Or what is the effect of people when they are victims of this? she says.
Bergfalk knew that his calling was to help others and he believes that everyone has a reason for their actions.
“Probably 95 percent of people with addiction have at least one history of trauma,” she says.
That understanding is key to his approach when working with people with addictions. Given her empathetic nature, the women of Coffee Connection feel comfortable talking to Bergfalk about her experiences.
“I was self-isolating and needed to do something, so I went to RochesterWorks! and they recommended that I come here,” says Kait Poweski, who started as a volunteer worker at Coffee Connection.
Most of the women begin their careers at Coffee Connection as volunteers. The work provides them with stability while they recover. Since the position is volunteer, the workload is less demanding, which most employees prefer, as keeping a full-time job while recovering can be overwhelming.
“(People struggling with addiction) want to work to save money, but it usually doesn’t work out to their advantage, because they end up relapsed (because of the stressful work environment),” says Poweski.
After volunteering, employees often choose to stay on and take on a full-time position. Coffee Connection sticks to its mission by offering a safe environment for recovery. Currently, there are 20 women working in the organization.
Employees’ journey to sobriety and mental health comes before work. While a typical work schedule and deadlines are still met, there is a sense of understanding when issues arise.
“It’s a supportive and understanding environment,” Poweski says.
One of the keys to the success of Coffee Connection is communication. Workers maintain open communication, whether it’s a problem or a relapse in the fight. As all women have had similar experiences, Coffee Connection has a caring atmosphere.
“It’s very open communication, we can basically talk to the CEO about anything that’s going on in our lives,” says Amanda Harris, who manages the Coffee Connection database. “Personal, related to recovery, whether we’re struggling, even relapse, if there is a relapse.”
Counseling is just as important as employment for those who work at Coffee Connection. Bergfalk wants to help these women succeed in life; she wants them to talk if they have problems.
“It’s not a regular workplace where you go to work because you have to work and then go home and there are no strings attached,” says Erica Droz, a barista at Coffee Connection. “Here, we have developed relationships on what we fight with.”
Since all women have gone through similar experiences, they can also support each other and help to overcome difficulties.
“That’s what’s different (from) other work, things just get pushed to the side or forgotten,” says Abbott. “Here, we take the time to stop and say, so what did you mean by that?”
Bergfalk doesn’t want them to feel ashamed of their addictions.
“People with addiction have terrible shame,” she says. “When people understand where their addiction comes from, they feel less shame and are better able to take responsibility.”
The pandemic brought more challenges, in addition to dealing with personal issues and the road to recovery. The organization had to close one location due to a funding shortfall.
“Covid has kicked our butt,” says Bergfalk, who did not provide financial details.
Like most small businesses, Coffee Connection suffered a significant cut in revenue.
Additionally, the non-profit organization had to close its Greenhouse Cafe, as most of the revenue came from music events and seated customers. The location in market mall It’s still open, but business is slow.
To stay afloat during the pandemic, Bergfalk says he applied for every possible COVID-19 relief grant and got more loans. Employees were covered by the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic.
Even now, the future is uncertain. Still, Bergfalk praises the current staff and thinks the future looks bright.
“This is the first time we’ve had a staff that can really take charge of things and I don’t have to do as much (with) operations,” says Bergfalk.
With the current staff, he is confident in the future of the cafe when he inevitably resigns.
The remodeling also prompted another look at the formation process. Typically, new hires would receive minimal training and gain more skills by watching their peers work. Now, Coffee Connection plans to introduce a soft skills course.
“(We want to teach) simple things in recovery like calling, dress etiquette… (not) having a cell phone at work,” says Abbott.
The goal of this new training module is to help employees prepare to be part of the workforce.
Although it was remodeling its space, Coffee Connection remained open. The renovations have already been attracting new customers.
“The fact that we made it through Covid as a nonprofit is amazing,” says Abbott.
Rylan Vanacore is an intern at the Rochester Beacon and a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Beacon welcomes feedback from readers who adhere to our comment policy including the use of your full and real name.