Firehouse Coffee Shop Has St. James Buzzing

UPDATE: You can keep up with the Firehouse Coffee Shop’s progress on Facebook.

What a difference a year makes.

Twelve months ago, the city of St. James was in mourning. A tragic school bus accident last August, just up the road on I-44 in St. Louis, had killed a student and injured many more, and also took a bit of the town’s innocence.

With the accident as a backdrop, school began just a few short weeks later. For the first time the staff included Terrill Story, a former youth pastor who was a last-minute addition to the overburdened counseling staff. But as the school healed, Terrill saw in his position more than a temporary job – he saw a new way, with the help of a dedicated faculty and administration, to drastically improve students’ lives.

Over the course of the 2010-11 school year, Terrill went to work, establishing the school’s active Youth Empowerment Project chapter (he is currently the sponsor) and submitting an application for a 2011 Coover grant (click here for information and an application on the 2012 Coover program). The mission: to transform a dilapidated, abandoned city firehouse into a coffee shop that would not only raise funds for the YEP chapter’s local philanthropic efforts, but also give students and the community a safe, comfortable place to eat, study and gather.

(Click and watch Terrill Story explains what he hopes the coffee shop will accomplish for the students of St. James)

The project was one of eight selected to receive 2011 Coover grants, and was awarded to the chapter in May at the RSP’s annual get-together in Thomasville, Mo. Work began late that month, just days before school ended.

“I thought nothing short of a stick of dynamite would help the place,” says St. James High School Principal Keith McCarthy.

But all it really needed was an energetic tenant. The building is leased from the city of St. James, which agreed to rewire and bring the space up to code in exchange for a $5 monthly rent. (In fact, one St. James YEP member was so excited that she drove to city hall and plopped down the first month’s $5 from her own pocket.)

It’s taken a small army of students and endless hours from Terrill and his family, but the project is taking shape, and should open for business sometime in early September.

It will take a similar small army to keep the coffee shop – dubbed Firehouse Coffee Shop – staffed and operational. While students can’t be there during the day, Terrill says a number of groups have agreed to help out, including townspeople, home-school students and parents interested in getting involved, and members of the Missouri Options Program, run through the St. James Alternative School. These students spend half the day in studies, and the other half either in jobs or community service.

One of these students is Brandon Toebben, 18, who on a recent Tuesday was on hand to help Terrill sweep up the exterior of the coffeehouse before heading to practice with the St. James football team. Brandon is interested in a career in in the culinary field, and sees the kitchen at Firehouse Coffee Shop, which will service light meals including soups, salads and sandwiches, as a great step toward that goal. He also hopes to help further the hangout’s mission of keeping fellow students from getting into bad situations and making bad choices.

(Click to watch Brandon talk about how he hopes Firehouse Coffee Shop helps students.)

There are a few things still to do, though much of it is the city’s donated electrical work. Terrill keeps detailed “to-do” lists posted around the coffee shop, and even though the new school year has already started in St. James, he and the school’s art faculty and Art Club (who are responsible for much of the interior) are pulling long hours along with their students to get the project completed.

If early buzz is any indication, St. James is ready for Firehouse to open for good. From a practical standpoint, St. James currently doesn’t have a dedicated coffee house. And from a sentimental standpoint, many in St. James are excited to see the previously abandoned ex-firehouse turn into a vital part of the community once more. In homage, Firehouse Coffee Shop will feature donated firefighter gear, old photos of the station and trucks in action, and other odes to the history of the town and department.

(Click and watch Terrill talk about the community’s reaction to the renovations.)

Other tasks to complete include the exterior, which already includes a sensational mural bearing the coffee house’s name. Terrill hopes to partner with the Environmental Club to build a small “reflection garden” for students to remember the classmate they lost, and provide a spot for quiet thought.

But in the end, it’s about learning, tutoring and peer-to-peer connecting.

“I really want this to be a place for kids to go when home isn’t the best option,” says Terrill. The shop’s after school-to-6 p.m. hours (open to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) should make that possible.

“This should be a place of continuity, a place to pay it forward and invest in something.”