Wildflyer Coffee Brews Solutions for Youth Homelessness
31 October 2023
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota estimates 6,000 youth experience homelessness on any given night, with about half in the Twin Cities area. There are many contributing factors like involvement in the justice system, neglect, abandonment or family conflict. Perhaps the biggest barrier for these youth to obtaining a place to live is finding and maintaining employment. One Twin Cities coffee shop is using its brews as a means to address that issue.
“We believe we can educate the community on what youth homelessness looks like in our area while working with young people as they develop their independence and work towards a more stable future,” said Wildflyer Coffee Program Manager Kenzie Diessner.
Wildflyer Coffee is a nonprofit coffee shop with locations in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. While Wildflyer creates coffee that tastes good, it believes its coffee can also do good. With a mission “to create employment opportunities for youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability through the cultivation of life skills and personal empowerment,” Wildflyer has built a program to accomplish that goal.
Co-founder and Executive Director Carley Kammerer started Wildflyer in 2017 as a small coffee cart, catering at small events and markets. The first brick-and-mortar store came in 2020 in Minneapolis, adding a Saint Paul location in 2023. The Wildflyer team’s background is rooted in social work and various youth operations, imparting a deep understanding of the issues revolving around youth homelessness.
“With our awareness of the cyclic nature of youth homelessness, we wanted to create a space for dignified employment and the opportunity to develop skills that can stop that cycle, " said Diessner.
Wildflyer’s Coffee Work & Life Skills Training Program is a four-month employment training program to cultivate the personal and professional skills youth aged 16-24 need to find and maintain stable employment and leave homelessness for good. Diessner estimated about 20% of the youth Wildflyer works with are justice-impacted, but the homelessness issue goes well beyond that.
“Getting a job is not the issue; keeping a job is,” she said. “It's challenging to consistently show up to work on time when you don’t know where you’re sleeping that night or where your next meal comes from.”
The program includes three sections. The first involves delivering the hard skills necessary for the daily operations of the coffee shop, with graduates capable of working in any coffee shop as a typical barista. The second involves education on the soft skills necessary to keep a job, from attendance and punctuality to proper communication and interaction with staff and customers. The final piece is the development of a “YOU Portfolio” through guidance from support staff and employment counselors on mock interviews, resume preparation and other aspects to complete their readiness for the workforce.
“Our goal is to not only train our cohorts on employment but also to help them develop the confidence to maintain gainful employment in a space that lets them dream about what's next,” said Diessner.
Wildflyer’s impact in 2022 by the number is impressive: $85,000 in wages paid and 3,500 hours of youth employment, with 80% of those young people remaining employed or enrolled in education and a stable housing situation at their three-month post-graduation check-in.
Solutions for struggles
Youth experiencing homelessness suffer through numerous obstacles, whether it be time in the criminal justice system, the draw of substance abuse, mental health or other issues. Wildflyer's leadership does not shy away from working through those situations, with flexible accountability the phrase that best defines their approach.
“We want our program participants to know we care about them, that Wildflyer can be a safe space to make mistakes and grow, but that also means having the hard conversations around accountability and expectations in the workplace and for what they want for their future,” said Diessner.
Many employers would fire an employee for showing up late, but at Wildflyer, that scenario is viewed as a starting point to meet the individual where they’re at to talk about what is going on in their outside life leading to that point.
“We respect their situation and want to have a conversation to talk about the possibilities for growth and improvement,” said Diessner. “We believe in universal human dignity and leading with grace to hopefully grow that in all our cohorts.”
Appreciation for partners
Collaborations with numerous partners help make Wildflyer’s mission a reality. Diessner pointed to Normandale College and Caribou Coffee in the hard skill training arena, who collaborated with them to create a customer service workshop to allow students to earn continuing education credits at the school.
“We are so thankful for their work and impressed with Caribou’s intentionality with our program participants and concern about teaching the industry's customer service principles,” she said.
Long-time partner Avivo offers employment counseling, emphasizing the importance of continuity and consistency in career development.
“Avivo has always been aligned with how we work with our young people along their journey,” said Diessner.
The building where Wildflyer’s Minneapolis location is housed is also the office of Two Betty’s Green Cleaning Service. The business created a cleaning kit for youth moving into apartments or living spaces.
“We have had seven youth move into their own living spaces this year,” said Diessner. “The cleaning kit may seem simple, but it's a resource and symbol of their progress.”
More to do
After adding the second location in 2023, Diessner believes it is time to think about what is next for programming at Wildflyer.
“We have developed a Youth Advisory Committee to help us determine what continued support graduates seek as they leave Wildflyer and move into their next employment opportunity,” she said. “We are also continuing to develop strategic partnerships with businesses to hire graduates of our program and provide a work environment that encourages learning and growth."
Wildflyer takes applications for their program four times a year and will begin accepting the next round of applications in November. Apply here to be part of the Work Experience Program. Those interested in helping Wildflyer Coffee with its mission can donate here.
Ramsey County Workforce Services has numerous programs aimed at helping employers find qualified workers, including justice-impacted individuals. Contact us today to learn more about Fair Opportunities, the collaboration of Ramsey County and the Workforce Innovation Board of Ramsey County with information, resources and events to help employers better understand the value of hiring individuals impacted by the criminal justice system.
Coffee and Conversation: A discussion on the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Regional and Local Workforce Development Plan