A couple of months ago, Dr. Laurel Ofstein, associate professor of management at Western Michigan University, invited me to speak to her small business management class about social entrepreneurship. She was familiar with our work at the Walnut & Park Café and thought her class would be interested in learning more about KPEP and the coffee shop. Many people today, particularly college students, like spending their dollars at businesses that are local and have a social purpose. The Walnut & Park Café fits perfectly into that model.
Professor Ofstein asked if I could bring one of the Walnut & Park Café managers as well. I asked what she thought about not only bringing a manager, but also a program graduate and current Walnut & Park Café employee. She loved that idea, and on September 18, Walnut & Park Manager, Tera Staten, KPEP graduate and W&P employee, Jennifer Heath, and I visited professor Ofstein’s class at WMU.
I began by explaining to the class the mission behind KPEP and the role we play in the community. I also discussed why KPEP decided to start a hospitality program and the Walnut & Park Café. Tera shared what KPEP hospitality students learn in the classroom and how the coffee shop helps them develop real on the job skills. Jenn followed by sharing her experience in the KPEP program.
While she completed the program, she didn’t take it seriously the first time around and began to fall back into her old lifestyle after graduation. When faced with 90 days in jail or up to 6 months in KPEP because of a probation violation, Jenn decided to take the long view and enrolled in KPEP’s hospitality program. She told me that seeing three people she knew overdose in the last year really had an impact on her. She thought about her life and her responsibilities as a mother of three and decided it was time to take her recovery seriously.
I often ask our students about the difference between getting treatment in KPEP versus a jail or prison setting. When I asked Jenn this question regarding the hospitality program, she didn’t hesitate to tell me how KPEP was more valuable to her because every morning she got up and made “a choice” to come to class. She could have slept in, walked out the door or chosen a number of different options, most of them not good. Instead, she made the choice every day to come to class or work in the coffee shop. This made it a real-life school and work experience and one that Jenn will more easily continue when she leaves Walnut & Park.
After Jenn’s presentation, Professor Ofstein shared some of her observations and those of her students.
“I am so happy that my students could learn about Walnut & Park to better understand that a business can do well, while also doing good for the community,” she said. “As the business succeeds, so will many of the individuals helped by the opportunities Walnut & Park provides. We are so lucky to have this program in our community.
WMU student Thomas Love observed, “It was refreshing to see an organization help give people a second chance and teach them skills to help them succeed in the future.”
And fellow student Michael Meilak said, “Walnut & Park is a business developed for the betterment of the whole community – an idea we can all get behind.”
The positive impact KPEP’s vocational programs have had on the community are extraordinary. KPEP is working with individuals who would otherwise be a cost to society and helping them become contributors – and at a cost far less than sending them to prison.
In our building trades program, for instance, KPEP students are rehabilitating old houses so new homeowners can buy them. This generates property taxes, increases the stability of the neighborhoods and trains our residents for high-demand jobs.
I can talk about the concept behind KPEP, but that message has an even greater impact when KPEP students are able to share their story of recovery and rehabilitation with the community. I thank Professor Ofstein for inviting us to do just that.