Brewerytown: Former Foster Youth Find Opportunity at The Monkey and The Elephant

Lisa Miccolis’ desire to change the foster care system began after she visited South Africa in 2008. There, she met a 16-year-old Zimbabwean refugee who would lose his refugee status at 18 and have to return to Zimbabwe.

Watching the lives of youth change the instant they turned 18 and lost access to support services sparked a determination in Miccolis to find out what she could do to fill that gap in services. In 2015, she opened up The Monkey and The Elephant, Philadelphia’s first and only nonprofit coffee shop with a youth foster care program.

“For me, I felt really persistent that this was the direction that made sense to go in, and there wasn’t much that was going to deter me from that,” Miccolis said. “I had enough people getting behind the idea and saying that it was of value and important, then just kind of riding that wave until we were able to make it happen.”

Miccolis spent years researching how to organize and build the shop. She held curated pop-up shops in various parts of Philadelphia to pilot ways to effectively provide the youth with services while also running a sustainable business.

“I spent a lot of time researching for-profit vs nonprofit, hybrids of the two, finding other organizations that were doing similar work or had similar structures,” Miccolis said. “And I tried to get a gauge of the pros and cons of all the different structures.”

At the start, running the program proved a bit overwhelming for the team.

“When we opened here, we were the employer, case management support,” she said. “ We were peers and mentors. All the staff were playing a lot of different roles with the employees we were working with and it made for a lot of messes. It’s really hard to hold somebody accountable to show up to work on time when you know a lot about their personal life and that they didn’t have a place to sleep the night before.”

Over time, the shop built a community with fellow organizations and residents of Brewerytown. To properly execute The Monkey and The Elephant’s mission, Miccolis partnered up with YVLifeset, a program that provides intensive case management for youth transitioning out of the foster care system.

The partnership also helped create boundaries and a friendly atmosphere at work by allowing Miccolis and her managers to focus on the employer-employee relationship.

“I think a change that happened is that we shifted more recently to focusing more cleanly on employment,” Miccolis said. “We have a referral organization that provides case management support. It just alleviated some of what we were carrying in terms of working with the program employees.”

Being a part of The Monkey and The Elephant program has been a transformative experience for employee Draé Sallard (pictured at top). Through his time there, Draé has tapped into skills, abilities and potential that were already inside but just waiting to be realized, he said.

“I’m a leader,” Draé said. “I’m more dependable. I’m reliable. They helped me manage my money, so I’m better with saving.”

Program coordinator Meghan Ryan saw early on that The Monkey and The Elephant program leaders were willing to invest in the kids of the program and create conditions for people to learn and grow.

“The last organization that I worked for, we had a program for young adults that was like 250 kids and it was much more dependent on the kids to show up for things than here, where we’re like really intensive,” Ryan said. “And that’s what kids need especially when they haven’t had work experience and they haven’t had people really investing in them and creating some boundaries for their safe growth.”

Before coming to The Monkey and The Elephant, Ryan mentored young adults at Red Hook Houses in New York City for 10 years. She moved to Philadelphia in search of a progressive youth development program and has been at The Monkey and The Elephant for eight months now.

Lisa Miccolis (Left) and Meghan Ryan (Right) in meeting for The Monkey and The Elephant Program

“I teach professional development, so I’m building the curriculum to help build the skills and mindsets that they need to become healthy adults, but also to gain the work readiness skills,” Ryan said.

Draé was in a transitional period in his life when he first found out about The Monkey and The Elephant. He recently had his housing taken away and was staying at the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless young people that also provides support services. After being told he’d be a great fit at The Monkey and The Elephant, Draé came in for an interview and has been working at the shop since 2016.

“This coffee shop is everything,” Draé said. “It’s up and running. It gave me a purpose, it gave me motivation, it gave me ambition, it gave me dedication. ”

It’s been quite the evolution for him. In and out of foster care since the age of 4, and adopted at age 8 by a foster family, Draé struggled with being misunderstood by his peers and foster family. He developed a rebellious attitude, got in a lot of fights and was later diagnosed with ADHD, he said. Before The Monkey and The Elephant, Draé felt a little lost. Now, he describes the shop as a family.

“When I first started I had no idea what I wanted to do in the future,” Draé said. “Didn’t know what my goal was. Didn’t know what the mission was. Didn’t even know how to take the steps that I needed to take to get a goal or achieve a plan. Now I know in the future that I want to own my own coffee shop. I want to make a difference.”

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