By Midge Pierce
A decade ago the corner of SE 57th and Division St. was notorious for a drug ring that operated from Mexico to the Canadian border. Today, it is a bright, lively community-owned commons and coffeehouse called Cafe au Play that fills with youngsters, their families and events like August’s Play Palooza.
On the cusp of celebrating its fourth year of operations, the nonprofit offers music-making, puppet shows, arts and crafts and storytelling.
A typical day may find musicians tuning instruments, parents sipping coffee, volunteers sprucing up the area and children climbing rocks, following garden paths, filling toy-trucks with sand and playing make-believe in a playhouse with child-high-only clearance that beckons young imaginations.
Parents and caretakers share support and child-rearing tips. “It’s easy to feel isolated when you have small children,” says Executive Director Kristin Heying. “Networking is crucial.”
This month Cafe au Play extends its age reach with a new program called Night Grounds that will expand hours of operation into evenings so teens and young adults have a place to gather for homework and positive interactions.
Board President Josh Lighthipe says the after-hours initiative, funded by an Advantis Credit Union Grow Grant, will also provide more opportunities for barista training.
“Night Grounds will be a place where young people can do homework or have poetry readings. There is nothing else quite like it nearby.”
Training Manager Marc Langlois says, “It’s a youth hang-out where job-skill seekers can learn customer service and develop work ethics.”
Night Grounds begins September 5 from 7- 9 pm. It is free and open to the public and will feature live music, a photobooth, a student espresso demonstration, a barista program slideshow and free coffee and snacks.
“It’s rare for communities to be able to work together to establish a special place like this,” says Paul Leistner who was instrumental in getting SE Uplift and two neighborhood associations involved in transforming the property.
“The journey has been joyful,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, communal thing that we did together.”
The history of what’s now known as Tabor Commons, with Cafe au Play as its tenant, is remarkable.
Mt. Tabor and South Tabor neighborhood associations and the Atkinson PTA worked together to raise some $50 K in funding to buy the site. Under the umbrella of Southeast Uplift, the property was purchased from the Feds after its seizure during the drug raid.
It took years of planning and renovation – including the decommission of oil tanks left behind by a gas station that once operated on the corner – to ready it for use by little hands and feet.
Throughout the process, the partners drew inspiration from young, single mother Heying who poured her nonprofit skills, determination and vision into a neighborhood showplace.
“We are so appreciative of the community support, our volunteers and musicians.” she says.
Cafe au Play has been a particularly vibrant hub of activity this summer with entertainers Olive & Dingo, Tallulah’s Daddy and Red Yarn and others. A dad’s support group meets some Saturdays.
The now-annual Play Palooza’s all star music jam in August saluted the talent that contributes to the cafe’s success and was a high point of summer.
Heying says ticket sales are passed along to the artists. “Play Palooza is a way to give back to our wonderful talent.”
Not everyone who frequents the cafe, she explains, can afford to make the donations suggested for activities they experience.
In July, NW Impact hosted a Jobs 101 Cafe au Play Field Day in which students from Franklin High entertained toddlers and preschoolers with ball throws, bubble blowing, arts and crafts and hula hooping.
The objective of the Jobs 101 class is to provide fundamental components of job development and career searches – a goal that aligns well with Cafe au Play’s mission of providing educational opportunities for young people.
Partnering with nonprofits like NW Impact is ideal for Cafe au Play given its location across from Franklin High.
Few who frequent the cafe may realize that job training is a key mission of Cafe au Play that has offered intensive skill building to dozens of young people.
Langlois has high hopes for the expanded Night Grounds Training Programs. “We hope it will help young people set and achieve personal goals as well as learn interpersonal skills.”
In September Night Grounds will be open Thursdays and Fridays. Manager Langlois hopes to expand Night Grounds to five or six nights a week later this year.
Night-time hours will be posted online at cafeauplay.org.