Volunteer café is a community builder

Tucked away on a side street off Lougheed Highway is a little known not-for-profit café run entirely by volunteers. It's called Connections Coffee House, and it's the brainchild of local resident Brenda Mitchell.

"It just kind of grew on me, the idea that this place here could really be a good spot for people to gather together and get to know each other as neighbours," she says. "We have an opportunity to build community here."

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Mitchell, a music therapist and mother of three, has lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years. When she had the idea to use a vacant storefront, she approached her church, Brentwood Park Alliance, which gave her full support and backed the project financially. The café opened in September, and almost all of the volunteers are from her church.

Connections Coffee House is in a storefront at the base of a high rise in the Brentwood mall area. The neighbourhood is mostly residential, and the café is a bit off the beaten path, but Mitchell doesn't seem to mind. That's because the focus is about building community, not profits.

"It really is about creating a gathering space that would build and nurture relationships," she says.

Drinks are $1, and specialty drinks, like lattes and cappuccinos, are $2 - tax included.

"We wanted it to be easy and affordable for people to come here," she says. "That's why our prices are so low."

The volunteers all get proper barista training, the coffee is from Vancouver's JJ Bean (which is fair-trade and organic), and the baked goods are from Burnaby's Monte Cristo Bakery. There's also a Wii for kids to play, and Wifi is free.

The café's customers are mostly from the immediate community: firefighters, families (there's a play-space for children), seniors and students.

Take 30-year-old Roquela Fernandez for instance. The displaced Torontonian and creative writing student lives in a nearby condo but rarely sees her neighbours.

"You can walk down the streets here and not see anyone," she says. Now that she's a regular at Connections Coffee House, Fernandez has had a chance to meet some of those neighbours.

"It's really changed the way I feel about the community and the people in it. It's kind of discouraging to not know people, to not feel you have a place where you live. That's kind of terraformed the way I feel about this place in my community, and it's really nice to come in and have people know your name and care about you."

Fernandez says the volunteers at Connections Coffee House authentically care about the people who frequent the café.

"(Author) David Foster Wallace writes a lot about the professional smile. I love Starbucks, but you know they are doing it - they have the professional smile," she says. "(At Connections) I do believe they authentically care, they really put in a lot of effort. They put in their own time.

They are not getting paid. It's something that comes from the heart, and that's important to me."

There is low-income housing in the neighbourhood, and the café volunteers have already collected donations for the food bank and referred one family to a Christmas bureau program. They also run regular English conversation sessions, where anyone in the community can drop in on Wednesdays and Fridays to practice. There's a parents' and tots' drop-in group on Tuesdays from 9: 30 to 11: 30 a.m. Parents can gather for adult conversation while their kids play.

When asked why the church would help open a café, Brenda replied: why not?

"I would hope that any church would want to be a part of their community," she says. "It's not about bringing people to church, that's not why we are here. - It's about serving this community."

Local resident Sue From first heard about the café through Brentwood Park Alliance and has been volunteering since the beginning.

"I really enjoy it, I want to volunteer more," she says. "I like to see people come in and enjoy themselves. - They are happy to come in and happy when they leave. We've actually sat with people who have come in, and they really needed a good listening ear."

To check out the café, stop by 5063 Anola Dr., from Tuesdays to Sundays, from morning till 9 p.m. Visit connectionscoffee.ca for more information or call 604-566-9993.

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