The Monkey & the Elephant Café Employs Former Foster Youth

The North Philadelphia café offers paid barista training to youth from the foster care system.


All photos courtesy of Lisa Miccolis

From the editor: Lately, we’ve been featuring several café-nonprofit hybrids that are promoting job sustainability for foster youth, including The Twin Cities’ Wildflyer Coffee and Street Bean Coffee Roasters in Seattle—both of which you can read about in the latest December + January 2019 issue of Barista Magazine. Today we continue the coverage with the Monkey & the Elephant in North Philadelphia, another awesome nonprofit that provides paid coffee training to recent foster youth.

The Monkey & the Elephant is a café with a mission—to equip former foster youth with personal and professional skills to help them break the cycle of system involvement, which is accomplished through a one-year paid coffee training program. Founder and Executive Director Lisa Miccolis came up with the idea for the nonprofit in 2011, and in the years that followed, the Monkey & the Elephant (M&E) held several pop-up events, eventually opening their brick-and-mortar café in North Philadelphia—in an area known as Brewerytown—in February 2015.

Lisa’s history in coffee and youth work started when she “kind of fell into coffee [work] after college at an Italian-run café in Downtown Philly”; she says that at the time she actually hated coffee. Eventually she was won over by the atmosphere and community that cafés provide, and was introduced to cupping by a Counter Culture Coffee representative in the area. She also spent time working with YouthBuild Philadelphia, a charter school for young adults who have dropped out of high school.

The Monkey & the Elephant café offers paid barista training to youth formerly in the foster care system.

On a trip to South America in 2008, she met a 16-year-old Zimbabwean refugee. When he turned 18, he lost his refugee status, had to put his education on hold, and was forced to return to Zimbabwe. The trip was dangerous to make, so he and Lisa decided on code words to use when they spoke to make sure he was safe. The code words were their favorite animals: Lisa’s was the monkey, his was the elephant.

When she realized this uncertainty was something many young adults around the world experience, Lisa had a “classic light-bulb moment where I was like, I’ll open a coffee shop and I’ll employ young adults that have been in foster care,” she says. “Then it was like, let’s set out and figure out how to do that.”

Coming from this background in both coffee and youth work, Lisa identified coffee training as a way to empower young adults exiting the foster care system. These youth often face challenges that other folks might not, like more frequent instances of trauma including intergenerational trauma, housing instability, financial insecurity, incarceration, and low educational attainment.

Another challenge is the abrupt cut-off of services once someone ages out of foster care. “You could be in school, high school or college; you’d have a place to stay, whether that was with a foster family or in a group home,” Lisa says. “And then on your 18th birthday, you’re kind of handed your belongings and sent off on your way. Now you can stay in the system until you’re 21; there’s certain requirements you have to abide by.”

Lisa points out that success looks different for each trainee. “For one person, it could be by month two or three, showing up consistently for a shift, or following the call-out procedure, or following the procedure to let somebody know that they are running late for a shift, or not shutting down when it gets really busy. … It could be learning how to make espresso and mastering that skill. It’s going to vary depending on the individual, depending on what their capacity is when they start with us,” she says.

The Monkey & the Elephant is located in North Philadelphia.

Paid barista training at M&E consists of a 30-hour work week, including four hours of professional development a week. Those four hours address different topics, like how to budget and track expenses, as well as how to meet financial goals. Training also includes watching TED Talks and short documentaries to introduce trainees to different ways of approaching life situations. Lisa says, “We ultimately are looking for growth and to develop life skills in five areas: professionalism, teamwork, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, and self-efficacy, which is a really important one—the belief in yourself that you can accomplish things.”

For more on the Monkey & the Elephant and to donate to its mission, head here.

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Mark Van Streefkerk
is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.