Coffee Connection emerges from pandemic struggles

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Coffee Connection hosted a grand reopening on Aug. 20. (Photos by Rylan Vanacore)

After a few challenging years, Coffee Connection is optimistic about its future. The coffee roaster and cafe, a nonprofit that works with women in recovery, had to close a location as it struggled to manage a funding gap during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The location at 681 South Ave. was remodeled in July and hosted a grand reopening event last weekend.

“We had applied for some grant money and that’s kind of what prompted (the remodel),” says Erica Nicole Abbott, who manages the cafe and is the human resource and office administrator at Coffee Connection. “We just wanted something fresh, something clean.”

Founded in 2001 as Woman’s Coffee Connection, the organization started as a café and a place of work for women recovering from addiction. The coffee shop achieves its goals by creating jobs and training women for sustainable employment. 

The cafe got new life in November 2011 when Joy Bergfalk took over from the previous director, Nancy Sawyer-Molina. The organization was on the verge of closing.

Sawyer-Molina had called Bergfalk to say, “‘Don’t make any more connections for me, because I think we’re closing,’” Bergfalk recalls.

 “I (replied), ‘I don’t think so,’ which was one of the most insane things I’ve ever said,” she adds.

Bergfalk had helped found Project Empower in 2006, with the help of nonprofit Life Listening Resources. She merged Project Empower with Coffee Connection when she assumed leadership.

Bergfalk offers support to the women by taking a humanistic approach to addiction. She views the women at the organization as people and not clients.

“I will never call them clients unless I have to write something professionally,” Bergfalk says.

She has a strong sense of empathy, which started at an early age. 

“I’m clergy (and) my specialty is trauma,” says Bergfalk, who has a masters of divinity from Bethel Seminary-St. Paul in Minnesota and worked as a pastor over a period of more than four decades. “I started collecting traumatized animals when I was five, and then in third grade, I read a little book called ‘Runaway Slave’ about Harriet Tubman and I learned about human evil.” 

Since then, she’s spent her life studying trauma and how it affects people.

“So, a quest for me has always been, why do people do what they do? Or what is the effect of people when they are victims of this?” she says.

Bergfalk knew her calling was to help others and believes that everyone has a reason for their actions.

“Probably 95 percent of people with addiction at least have a history of trauma,” she says.

That understanding is key to her approach when working with people with addictions. Given her empathetic nature, the women at Coffee Connection feel comfortable talking to Bergfalk about their experiences.

“I was self-isolating and needed to do something, so I went to RochesterWorks! and they recommended me to come here,” says Kait Poweski, who started as a volunteer worker at Coffee Connection.

Most of the women begin their careers at Coffee Connection as volunteers. The job provides them stability while they are getting back on their feet. Since the position is volunteer, the workload is less demanding, which most staffers prefer since maintaining a full-time job while recovering can become overwhelming.

“(People struggling with addiction) want to work to save money, but it usually doesn’t work out for their benefit, because they end up relapsing (due to the stressful work environment),” Poweski says.

After volunteering, employees often choose to stay and take on a full-time position. Coffee Connection sticks to its mission by offering a safe environment for recovery. Currently, there are 20 women who work at the organization.

The employees’ journey to sobriety and mental health comes before work. While they are still met with a typical work schedule and deadlines, there is a sense of understanding when problems arise.

“It’s a supportive and understanding environment,” Poweski says.

One of Coffee Connection’s keys to success is communication. Workers maintain open communication–whether it is a problem or a relapse struggle. Since all the women have had similar experiences, Coffee Connection has an atmosphere of solidarity.

“It’s a very open communication, we basically can talk to the executive director about anything that’s going on in our lives,” says Amanda Harris, who manages Coffee Connection’s database.  “Personal, recovery-related, whether we’re struggling, even relapse, if there is relapse.”

Counseling is just as important as employment for those at Coffee Connection. Bergfalk wants to help these women succeed in life; she wants them to talk if they are having problems. 

“It’s not a regular workplace where you go to work because you have to work and then go home and there’s no ties,” says Erica Droz, a barista at Coffee Connection. “Here, we’ve developed relationships about what we struggle with.”

Since the women have all gone through similar experiences, they are also able to support each other and help overcome struggles.

“That’s what’s different (from) another job, things just kind of get pushed aside or get forgotten about,”Abbott says. “Here, we take the time to stop and be like, so what did you mean by that?”

Bergfalk does not want them to feel shame for their addictions.

“People with addiction have terrible shame,” she says. “When people have some understanding about where their addiction comes from, they feel less shame-based, and they’re more able to take responsibility.”

The pandemic brought more challenges, in addition to dealing with personal issues and the journey to recovery. The organization had to shutter a location because of a funding shortfall. 

“Covid has kicked our butts,” says Bergfalk, who did not provide financial details.

Like most small businesses, Coffee Connection suffered a significant cut in revenue.

In addition, the nonprofit had to close its Greenhouse Cafe, since most revenue there came from music events and sit-down customers. The location in Marketplace Mall is still open, but business there is slow.

To stay afloat during the pandemic, Bergfalk says she applied for every COVID-19 relief grant possible and took out more loans. The employees were covered under the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic.

Even now, the future is uncertain. Still, Bergfalk praises the current staff and believes the future looks bright.

“This is the first time that we’ve had a staff that is really able to take over things and I’m not having to do so much (with) operations,” Bergfalk notes.

With the current staff, she is confident in the cafe’s future when she inevitably steps down. 

The remodeling also prompted another look at the training process. Typically, new employees would get minimal training and they picked up more skills by watching their peers work. Now, Coffee Connection plans to introduce a soft skills course.

“(We want to teach) simple things in recovery like calling in, clothing etiquette … (not) having your cellphone out at work,” Abbott says.

The goal of this new training module is to help the employees get ready to be part of the workforce.

Though it was remodeling its space, Coffee Connection stayed open. The renovations have already been bringing in new customers. 

“The fact that we made it during Covid being a nonprofit is amazing,” Abbott says. 

Rylan Vanacore is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at Rochester Institute of Technology. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “Coffee Connection emerges from pandemic struggles

  1. Joy must have been putting on a good act while you were there! I’ve watched her demean employees and customers both. The woman definitely has a superiority attitude when she’s not acting out her role. I was supportive initially until some time passed and watched her at work.
    She even started talking down to me – have boycotted the place ever since.

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