[Episcopal News Service] Common Grounds Cafe, a 2,700-square-foot multipurpose facility nearing completion in Taos, New Mexico, will be made for young people like Haroula Maillis.
She was 16 in 2021 when she first learned about St. James Episcopal Church’s youth-led Common Grounds ministry and began attending peer support group meetings at the church. “It was just a safe place to kind of share what you were going through and share how your life is going,” Maillis, now 18, told Episcopal News Service.
Young people supporting other young people has been central to the success of Common Grounds’ ministry for years, since it formed as part of the community’s response to a rash of Taos-area teen suicides in 2016. Common Grounds has expanded beyond the church’s peer support group to include a food truck run by teens and young adults, and their plan all along was to eventually open a cafe, both as a safe gathering place for young people and as a facility that would offer a range of activities and social services.
Maillis, who was homeless for about a year after graduating high school, now serves on Common Grounds’ Youth Advisory Council, which makes most of the youth ministry’s decisions with oversight from the adults on its Board of Allies. She and others involved in the cafe project are finishing site renovations and planning for a possible opening in January.
Taos is a town of about 6,500 in northern New Mexico, near the Colorado state line. Young people there “have nowhere to go after school,” Maillis said. “I’m very excited [for the cafe] because I know it will be a wonderful resource.”
The cafe’s pending opening comes after years of planning, fundraising, property acquisition, permit applications, working with contractors and formalizing the cafe’s operation plan and policies. At each step, the teens and young adults who would benefit from the cafe have taken the lead.
“We really wanted it to be a youth-focused project and community center for them,” Sydney Cline, 21, told ENS.
As a member of St. James Episcopal Church, Cline has been involved in the ministry’s development nearly from the start, since she was 14. Now she is preparing to begin a new role as program coordinator, one of the cafe’s three paid staff members. St. James also has launched a search for a program director, the top employee overseeing Common Grounds’ ministries.
The youth cafe concept has come a long way from its origins in a discussion among teens from Taos’ two high schools. In response to alarm in the community over the 2016 teen suicides, the schools invited students to a weekend retreat promoting social-emotional intelligence, and the young people who attended identified the need for a safe space for teens in town to hang out with each other.
That plea initially inspired St. James to begin hosting its peer support group, and “what began just as a gathering place for them to talk about the frustrations of life grew from there,” the Rev. Mike Olsen, St. James’ priest-in-charge, told ENS.
Some participants were members of St. James, but many had no other connection to the church. In addition to attending the peer support group, they set their sights on opening a cafe and community center that would be available to all teens and young adults, with special attention to the challenges facing the significant number of unhoused youths in Taos.
“I told them that if they were serious in wanting to do that, I would be an adult ally and help make it happen,” the Rev. Jill Cline, Sydney Cline’s mother, told ENS. Before she was ordained a priest in 2022, she began advising the teens on their cafe project as St. James’ youth minister. The project also received early support and encouragement from leaders with the Diocese of the Rio Grande, she said.
High school juniors and seniors began planning for the cafe in 2017, identifying the project’s goals and initially estimating it would take about five years to complete. The biggest hurdle was finding a suitable location, and the project took a big step forward when the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative agreed to allow Common Grounds to take over a vacant building that previously had been used as a pediatric clinic. The cafe would pay a nominal annual fee for its use.
In the ensuing years, a core group of about 15 young adults has worked on the Common Grounds Cafe project. Some would age out and be replaced by younger volunteers. Over time, their vision sharpened and widened to include renovated bathrooms, showers, a laundry facility, a music room, an art room, a multimedia room, a food pantry and free clothes closet, meeting space, classroom space, a study room and a room for counselors to meet clients that would have a discreet separate entrance.
Jeremy Castillo, 20, in an interview with ENS, emphasized the accommodations for counseling, given the cafe’s origins as a response to the local mental health crisis. As a member of the Common Grounds Youth Council, Castillo has been involved with the ministry for about a year. He started working in the Common Grounds food truck that visits community events throughout the year.
Now he is looking forward to the opening of the cafe in a permanent location. “We’re a tiny town in New Mexico. There isn’t much to do,” he said. A youth cafe “would have made a big difference in my life had it been around when I was younger, when I really needed the support.”
By March 2020, Common Grounds had raised about half of the $200,000 estimated cost of renovating the building. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, slowing progress on the project. Under pandemic restrictions, the youth ministry continued with peer group meetings when possible, often in parks. Planning and fundraising for the cafe also continued, and in December 2022, Common Grounds received final permit approvals from the state and town to begin renovations.
In preparation for the opening, the Youth Council has discussed the best way to manage the cafe, operate the building and maintain a balanced budget. The cafe will be only open to people ages 14 to 24, and it will have a mix of paid staff and approved adult volunteers, with job descriptions drafted by the young organizers.
Common Grounds will continue to be managed as a ministry of St. James, but under the Youth Council’s leadership and with additional support from St. James’ community partner, the DreamTree Project, which offers emergency shelter for unhoused youth.
With those renovations nearly complete, Jill Cline said she thinks the success of Common Grounds sends a positive message “about how these teens take care of each other.” It also indicates “how much they need the support.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.