Community café breaks down barriers for Calgary youth

Ohana cafe youth gathering
Youth gather together at the Ohana Community Café, located at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. Submitted photo

Established in 2012 by St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, the Ohana Community Café has developed into a wildly popular space for area students who find food, fellowship and opportunities within its doors.

The non-profit café, which operates out of a lower hall in the church, started as an after-school drop-in program for students at Henry Wise Wood High School. The school’s anti-bullying committee provided valuable input, including the name—ohana, a Hawaiian term for “family” that extends beyond blood relations to include adoptive and intentional members.

“The idea originally was to provide a sanctuary or a safe place for students to come, or people in general in the neighbourhood—but students in particular—that was free of any kind of judgment,” youth programming and Ohana Café operator Aaron Havens said.

Every day, the café sells homemade soup and muffins for a dollar apiece, serving an estimated 700 to 900 students each month. A team of volunteers, comprised primarily of students as well as St. Peter’s parishioners, prepare the food in-house.

With the café offering work opportunities through the Calgary Board of Education, many students volunteer as part of their mandatory work hours.

“We do what we can to facilitate that and just encourage the kids to get involved,” Havens said.

Aside from instilling a sense of ownership for the students, he said, volunteering at the café teaches them valuable skills that they can take into the workforce.

In that vein, the café features a weekly cooking class every Wednesday after school.

“We’ve got kids from all different varying backgrounds…working together as a team for one goal, and that is to create a delicious and healthy meal that they can all enjoy together,” Havens said.

“It helps us to break down social barriers and religious barriers and all different kinds of barriers that way, so that they’re just seeing one another as equal human beings and they work together for a common goal.”

March cooking class 1
Students take place in a cooking class at the Ohana Community Café in March. Submitted photo

In addition to serving food, the café serves as a weekly meeting spot for a female aboriginal leadership program that works in conjunction with Aspen Family, a social agency committed to addressing homelessness in Calgary. It also hosts monthly luncheons for a community aboriginal student group based out of Henry Wise Wood.

Support for the café’s operations primarily comes from the community at St. Peter’s, food service revenue and help from Calgary community kitchens. The remainder of funding comes from outside sources.

Last November, the café received major assistance in the form of a $5,000 grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada. Representatives of the Foundation said the board was drawn to the Ohana Café’s work with disadvantaged students and aboriginal youth and its efforts to reach out to people beyond the church.

“It’s a place that’s really making a difference for good,” executive director Judy Rois said of the café. “It’s feeding people, it’s helping people develop a skill set, it’s mentoring, and it’s all about the value of human community.”

The Anglican Foundation grant will go toward covering operating costs as well as expanded programming. The café is hoping to initiate new art programs in the future, such as drum circles and an after-school breakdancing class.

“Without partnerships like that, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” Havens said. “So there’s just a lot of gratitude and feeling of blessedness from those organizations that they would support us.”

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