Chicago coffee house offers fresh start to ex-cons

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FOX 32 NEWS - On a busy stretch of Roosevelt Road, tucked into an historic building surrounded by vacant lots, soft jazz music plays inside the Chicago Hope Cafe as customers seek solitude from the hustle and bustle of their daily grind.

“People in the community need help, they need love, they need tenderness and I think that's what our event space brings out,” said James Ross, General Manager, Chicago Hope Café.

But this Christian-based, non-profit coffee house offers more than a variety of brews. It offers a fresh start to some ex-cons.

“It's been, I mean incredibly meaningful to be able to be plugged in here and welcomed and not have the felony, or the stigma of being someone's who's still actually incarcerated,” said Jeffers Straker, barista.

Stracker has worked here for about a year, given a second chance despite a felony drug conviction

“I saw him he had a little tenacity, you know he's got a good free spirit about him and he's a hard worker,” said Ross.
“I'm an ex-felon, lot of childhood stuff, I haven't been in trouble for years, I was born again in 2000 and ever since, I've been walking the straight and narrow,” said Kenard Crosby, the café’s manager.

He’s worked here for the past 16 months, and loves what he does to make a difference as well as a cup of coffee or a sandwich.

“If someone goes in, they look depressed or down, I ask them how they're doing and can I pray for them. I love working at a place where no one is ashamed of talking about Christ, same as the school, they teach about Christ in the school,” Crosby said.

That school is the Chicago Hope Academy, a Christian, college-prep high school serving under-privileged kids, founded by Bob Muzikowski, who also started the cafe to help fund the school.

Ross, who also comes from a troubled past, credits Muzikowski for helping him get on the right path about eight years ago.

“My car was broken down one time, he helped me jump the battery and we just started talking and fellowshipping and coming here for bible studies and what not,” Ross said.

That act of kindness has fostered a soft spot in Ross’ heart for those needing a fresh start themselves.

“When they get out jail they get a bus card, they get a Link card and it's like, good luck. Well, I just radically changed lives, because my life got radically changed after someone put trust in me,” Ross said.

But while coffee, breakfast and lunch are on the advertised menu,
the cafe also rents out space to community organizations for baby showers, banquets and a variety of other special events. The hope is to make a difference others aren't.

“I think society's looking for some government interference, or some politician to come out. It's not, it's gonna happen with a neighbor loving each other, it's gonna happen at the dinner table, it's gonna happen with people in the community backing it up, just helping each other out, that's where it happens,” Ross said.

Not only does the café hire those with felony backgrounds, it also gets its coffee from a company in Wheaton that also employs former felons, offering grounds for hope from the beans to the brew.