Walnut and Park Cafe serving coffee, panini and second chances

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Carl Brown is one of the many cooks at the Walnut & Park cafe that can brew a coffee exactly to a customer’s liking. He can make lattes and mochas, dark or light, iced or hot. It’s a skill he had to learn a month ago when he first arrived. It’s a job he said that will keep him out of jail.

“I love it,” said Brown during an interview at the cafe located at the intersection of Walnut and Park streets. “I love it because it’s an urban culture. I love it because it’s a new experience for me.”

Working at Walnut & Park is a new experience for most people at the coffee shop. The staff there comes from KPEP, a nonprofit community correctional program for criminal offenders and parolees who need more structure than jail time in order to get back on their feet.

“It’s really a tremendous program for people going through a really traumatizing problem with drugs and alcohol,” said Brown who’s had his own bout with narcotics. “They really sit you down and talk to you about your problems.”

Counseling’s just one part of the 10-week program for those enrolled in it. Brown said there’s also a custodial class, job-skills training, and a G.E.D program for people who didn’t complete high school. Everything they learn at KPEP, they apply at Walnut & Park.

“We’re calling it a hospitality-vocational program,” said William DeBoer, CEO and president of KPEP.  “They’re going to learn the cooking, the service, the cleaning, you know, all those kinds of things that really go into running a restaurant.”

Last summer, KPEP started their culinary arts program and afterwards began working on plans to open the coffeeshop. DeBoer said the idea for the shop was born years ago when board members researched the challenges criminals face when looking for a job. Walnut & Park was their solution.

“The restaurant industry is one which will hire a lot of people who have a record,” said DeBoer. “We have a vocational training program that ends up being a real job, a real paid-job for people.”

Brown said he’s come a long way since starting in the program and working at Walnut & Park. He’s 19 years old and has already experience neglect, a year of homelessness and a pair of overdoses.

“I was a rebel kid,” said Brown. “I always wanted to do something my way. I didn’t like to follow the status quo.”

In 2016, Brown was arrested for stealing a $2500 bike he said. The judge placed him in the program after he served some time in jail. It’s a decision he’s grateful for. He’s now decided to pursue psychology after he completes the program to help people with their own problems.

“I just hope people see the brighter side of life,” said Brown. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Like, stuff may be hard during this point in time but it’s always going to get better.”

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