by Dennis Dalman
Anna-Maija Lee’s empathy for young people suffering from grief and loss comes from a place deep within herself.
Lee has a passion for coffee as a social-bonding elixir. A long-time social worker, she is the founder and co-owner of “For the Love Project,” a mobile coffee cart service. Her love for coffee and how it can unify people began many years ago. Next summer, she plans to hire young people who are emotionally challenged to work the coffee cart at various public and private venues.
“Life for me was difficult, especially in my early teen years,” said the Sartell woman. “I was an only child. I put on weight in my teen years. I was teased, and I even laughed along with them, but the pain in my heart was real.”
Lee’s mother was a single mom in Michigan, who worked long hours and who moved frequently from one place to another. Lee did not meet her biological father until she turned 18.
To find refuge from her troubled life filled with nagging feelings of grief and loss, Lee would often sit for hours at a local coffee shop. It was her comfort zone in a messy world, and coffee and the “ritual” of coffee-drinking began to take on many meanings for her – feelings of warmth, solace, safety, social connections, sweet peace. Not surprisingly, Lee’s first job was as a coffee-shop barista in Northville, Mich. Later, while pregnant with one of her five children, she again worked as a barista at Caribou Coffee and at Starbuck’s.
After moving to Minnesota, she graduated with a degree in social work from the College of St. Scholastica (Brainerd campus). She then did an internship among the inmates in the Crow Wing County Jail. It was there she learned so much about the processes of grief and loss and of the emotional damage that can occur to children whose parents are incarcerated.
She also worked as a health practitioner at Brainerd High School and for four years at the Northern Pine Mental Health center.
“People think of grief and loss as related only to death,” Lee said. “But there are other forms of it, in some cases more longer lasting and devastating than what death can cause. There is also grief and loss caused by divorce, parental (military) deployment, foster-care placements and parental incarceration.”
And Lee has felt first-hand those kinds of loss and grief among so many young people during her years as a social worker in the St. Cloud school district. After receiving a social-work master’s degree from the University of Southern California, she began working for the school district in 2016. After nearly four years, she developed the beginning symptoms of “burn-out” and took a leave of absence.
The idea of starting a mobile coffee service, one that could eventually involve young people, came to her.
Preparing and serving coffee to people, she said, will enable young people to focus, to learn discipline, to develop good work habits and – just as importantly – to connect in positive ways with people (customers) while “giving back” to the community.
In January, Lee met another investor for her “For the Love Program” mobile coffee service. They launched the business in August.
Here’s how it works. Lee had a specialty mobile cart made that she dubbed “Joy.” The cart holds two coffee espresso machines as well as all kinds of supplies – fresh-ground coffee beans, tea, flavorings and so forth. By using an automatic lift winch, she puts the cart in a trailer connected to her van, then drives to a venue, where the winch can place “Joy” on the ground.
“Then, all I need is an electrical plug-in,” she noted.
She is fully licensed to do business anywhere. With social distancing and mask-wearing, she has brought “Joy” to corporate events, weddings and even an outdoor house party while it was snowing. She used a plexiglass shield as extra protection against any lurking viruses. She also takes “Joy” to in-house staff-appreciation events at area schools.
“It (For the Love Program) will be a supporting wrap-around program for teenagers,” Lee said. “It will provide structure, opportunities for meeting and talking with people, and instill a sense of stability.”
For the Love Program is truly community-based, Lee said. For example, in the St. Cloud School District there is the “One Step” program designed for people ages 18 to 24 who have cognitive or physical disabilities. One of their work projects and a way to make some money is to stamp logos on paper coffee cups and cup sleeves used for the mobile service. Also, five percent of any profits Lee gives to good local causes, such as those that support mental-health programs.
“Many coffee makers are my mentors who give me recipes, tips and their talents,” she said. “I am very, very grateful for that. I’m a tool that makes connections. I’m in the joy-making business.”
Her own favorite drink? Ice espresso with a bit of almond milk. The most popular with customers? Salted vanilla latte and Bear Hug latte with a cinnamon, clove, cardamom spice base.
In her public-speaking presentations, Lee refers often to “Mrs. C.” – a babysitter she had when she was a girl and her mother was working 60 hours a week.
“Mrs. C. was firm and stern sometimes, but I knew she loved me,” said Lee. “Mrs. C. was a woman of strong faith who taught me so many things.”
Every time Lee remembers Mrs. C., a flood of sweet memories comes rushing back.
“I learned from Mrs. C. that kids can thrive and be healthy and successful if they develop good connections with even one other person in a nurturing relationship. That sense of belonging can sustain someone throughout life. Mrs. C was my ‘one.’ Who is your ‘one?’’’