Story by Tricia Howley
“Once I came to visit, I fell in love with it immediately,” Danielle Higgins (B.S.W, ’17) says of the FoCo Cafe. “I just fell in love with how they treated everyone equally, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Higgins is one of two recent grads who spent this summer applying newly acquired social work skills and knowledge at the cafe, a nonprofit restaurant in downtown Fort Collins.
Together, the two have been working to advance the organization’s mission — to build community by providing meals regardless of ability to pay — through a summer breakfast program for children and their families.
Both Higgins and Connor also completed field placement internships at FoCo Cafe as part of their undergraduate study, and were hired post-graduation as co-directors for the summer breakfast program.
The program’s roots
Connor got the breakfast program off the ground in 2016.
“I thought, what is this going to look like? I used a lot of what I was learning in field education,” Connor said. “What current food assistance programs exist? How do we make our program accessible? How do we make it culturally competent? I did a bunch of research.”
Connor found the closest schools have free or reduced lunch rates of 75 percent or greater, and also discovered free local breakfast and lunch programs, but many of those had membership and age restrictions.
“We serve a lot of little ones and focus on the whole family,” said Connor. “We feel like if the child is hungry, the parents might be too, and everybody should be eating healthy food. This approach utilizes family systems theory.”
Today, what the program looks like is a lively and inquisitive bunch of children, from preschoolers to pre-teens, surrounding Connor and Higgins. They eat breakfast together, then move to an outdoor patio.
Pop-up tents mark the locations of interesting things to do. All the kids start on a craft project, using paper mache paste to gently smooth tissue paper onto balloons for piñatas. Next a local volunteer arrives, and everyone literally dives hands-first into making sauerkraut. Glass mason jars of other types of fermented foods are brought out to see: spicy green jalapenos, bright red beets and herb-infused purple cabbage. “Oohs” and “aahs” fill the tent as each jar is opened and passed around to smell what’s inside.
“What we’ve learned through trial and error is to have a lot of activities planned for the day,” said Higgins.
“We’re trying to jam-pack as many educational and fun activities as we can into the nine weeks our program runs,” added Connor.
“This year we also wanted to bring in a lot more guest speakers and community partners,” Connor said. “We had John ‘Worm Man’ Anderson teach about composting, and we hosted ‘Harriet,’ the milk goat, and the kids got to try milking.”
Connor realized early on that making the breakfast program fun would be key to its success. “Last summer was the first year, and there were maybe about five families coming. I was giving out flyers door-to-door, feeling like ‘this is not happening.’”
“One day last summer we were making these bird feeders, and I asked two boys, ‘Have you been doing anything fun, like going swimming?’ and they said no,” Connor recalled. “It was a moment of humility for me. I realized they couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to many activities around town.”
“This year we focused on early recruitment and partnerships for programming,” said Connor. “Kids can go back to school and say, ‘I milked a goat this summer!’ or ‘I learned how to grow food.’ This year, on our biggest day, we had 40 people.”
Since Connor and Higgins became involved with FoCo Cafe through the School of Social Work field placement programs, they have also helped with grant writing, communication and social media.
Higgins advises students entering field placement to take time to observe when starting an internship. “A huge thing I did was just get to know everyone here. That sparked me to be able to help them with what they really needed.”
“Our coursework helped put things into context, and put some thought around who are we serving and their needs,” added Connor. “There’s a lot of freedom here for someone who is self-motivated.”
Connor will enter a master’s program in social work, specializing in system dynamics, at Washington University in St. Louis this fall. Higgins plans to move to Denver and apply for jobs.
“Be passionate about what you do, and learn to use your resources,” said Higgins. “It really was an incredible experience to have my internship here and to have been hired here for the summer.”