Building Community Through Food
One social work alumna’s big goals for FoCo
Dec. 20, 2018
Story and photos by Allie Ruckman
The chill of an early frost coats the air, ice fractures across the pavement, moisture rises like smoke into the cool blue sky – December in Fort Collins can be deeply unforgiving. Inside the FoCo Cafe, however, the atmosphere is as warm as ever. People chat idly across cozy tables seeped in sunlight, the volunteer chefs joke cheerily in the back, and the comforting smells of seasonal pumpkin soup, quinoa salad and warm corn muffins saturate the air. It’s easy to come inside this place and forget your problems and the cold press of winter outside.
Sitting at one of the tables beneath a window is the executive director of the cafe, Mallory Garneau (M.S.W., ’17). At age 27, she doesn’t look like the person who’d be in charge of such a unique and well-loved nonprofit, but it was her perseverance, hard work and honest character that got her this job, and she’s rising to the challenge as if she was born to do this work.
Rising to the top
“As a kid, I always had this feeling that I’d be doing something awesome,” she said with a grin. She didn’t know she’d end up in Fort Collins for 10 years, or end up getting a master’s in social work from Colorado State University, or be the executive director of a nonprofit so quickly.
Garneau started interning at the cafe in 2016 and rose to a leadership position in less than a year. “I always knew I wanted to work with people in some capacity, and I probably didn’t want to be a counselor because I tend to hold on to people’s stories and feelings and take them home with me, but I did know that I wanted to do something that made a difference,” said Garneau.
Recognizing innate dignity
The unique pay-what-you-are-able nonprofit restaurant was launched on Thanksgiving Day in 2014 by co-founders Jeff and Kathleen Baumgardner, who have since retired to Hawaii and entrusted Garneau to uphold their vision here in Colorado. The cafe was founded with five guiding principles in mind:
- Every human innately has dignity and should be treated as such.
- Every duty, volunteer or otherwise, has value.
- Participating in a community nourishes the soul.
- Everyone deserves to eat nutritional food.
- All people need a hand up at some point(s) in their lives.
“I have been visiting the FoCo Café for almost two years, either by volunteering or stopping in for a meal,” wrote Tripadvisor user sterlireg. “I have never been disappointed with the service or the food. Always fresh and homemade. If you are ever in need of a fresh and filling meal and dining with people from all walks of life, this is the place to go.”
The restaurant is a gem in the city, and is loved by Fort Collins residents, regardless of their means. Most of the fresh food is donated from local farms; Native Hill Farm is one of the locations that uses greenhouses to support the cafe year-round, despite harsh Colorado weather.
“I think what makes the cafe special is the empowerment behind how we run,” Garneau explained. “We don’t hand out free meals, this is an exchange service, it’s an empowerment service.” Because everyone is required to contribute something for their meal, people who may be struggling can gain a sense of self-confidence again.
“When people are down on their luck they often feel like they have nothing to offer, so when they are asked to give something in return and they follow through, they have a heightened sense of self. We have seen people go from homeless to self-sufficient just because of that step up,” she said.
Garneau has been lucky enough to give people the help they’ve needed during a tricky time in their life, and has watched as several homeless people in Fort Collins found love and support inside the cafe, which in turn helped them find steady jobs and safe places to live.
The history behind the passion
Garneau came to Colorado State University in 2009 from her home in the Highlands Ranch area as an undeclared major, but it was her experience studying abroad that solidified her interest in social work and making real-world change. She studied learning for sustainable development at Stellenbosch University, a prestigious institution just 45 minutes inland from Cape Town in South Africa. “The clash between races there is still so prominent, and generations are still holding on to their beliefs . . . that experience really directed me towards group community work, i.e. macro social work,” she explained.
One of the terms she learned during this trip, which now serves as a guiding principle in her life is “Umbuntu,” a Nguni Bantu term meaning “I am because we are.” She now relates this message to the importance of building cohesive community in Fort Collins and everywhere around the world.
“Community really means inclusiveness and being together and giving everyone an opportunity. Inclusiveness also takes care of the issue of isolation and loneliness. If people have the right mindset, community can almost fix anything,” she said.
When she returned from studying abroad, she decided to focus her efforts on working with victims of human trafficking and was thrilled to land a job at a new residential facility for teenage girls that had been trafficked. She signed a lease and prepared to start her adult life in Fort Collins. All of this was upset when the program lost its funding and never opened. Stuck in town, Garneau wasn’t sure what to do.
One of the things that makes Garneau so remarkable, however, is her resilience in the face of hardship. After this upset, she applied for the Peace Corps, and ended up teaching English and backpacking in Thailand for seven months. “This trip confirmed the idea that I wanted to work with communities where they are lacking basic needs like food, water and shelter,” she said.
When she returned to the U.S., she set her sights on a master’s degree in social work and earned her degree in 2013, all while interning at three different nonprofits in Fort Collins, one of which was the FoCo Cafe.
She started interning in the fall of 2016 as development support, and assisted Kathleen Baumgardner as she dealt with the ins and outs of nonprofit life. “I wrote grants, did event tables, I did site visits, all sorts of stuff. I got to try on lots of different hats, and I think for a while without me knowing it, [Kathleen] was grooming me for the position or maybe testing me in some ways,” Garneau said with a smile.
“Mallory was fearless. She always tackled projects with a can-do attitude. She was determined, productive, passionate and never feared a challenge,” says Baumgardner.
It was in March of 2017 that Baumgardner mentioned that she had a job for Garneau, her job. “I was like ‘no!’ I mean ‘yes!’ But ‘no!’” Garneau laughed. It was hard being thrown into a director role at such a young age, but Garneau had been shadowing Baumgardner for long enough that she felt confidence in her ability to figure things out on the fly.
Challenges along the way
The hardest part of the job so far, she admitted, was getting the respect she deserves. As a young woman in an executive-level role, she has struggled with maintaining her confidence in the face of those who doubt her abilities. “People were uneasy about the transition for a while. If they didn’t like what I was doing, it always came back to me being too young. But I feel like I’ve come a long way in that sense and grown in my own confidence,” she explained.
She also noted that she is certainly not the only woman to go through this. “What really always brought me back into my confidence zone was that the co-founders trusted me to do this, I can do it whether or not I think I can . . . I’ve always been good at having gut feelings and trusting those, and that’s kind of how I roll with everything I do,” she said with a tone of self-assurance.
Her belief in herself is what has made her so successful in keeping the Cafe alive and full of happy volunteers and satisfied customers. “Just keep your head up!” To other women who may be in a similar situation, she recommended, “Stay strong!”
Her day-to-day life in this role is constantly changing. The cafe only gets 48 percent of its funding from the lunch service (11 a.m. – 2 p.m. daily), and thus the remaining 52 percent must be found elsewhere. Garneau is the one to speak to donors, write grants, attend events, accept awards, maintain the social media pages, handle the finances and ensure that the public stays active with the cafe.
“I strongly believe that there are benefits to revolving your life around something that matters. What’s more important than people? We deal with people every day. We could have a bunch of issues or we could be a team,” she said. “It’s about finding those hands and helping them work cohesively.”
“Mallory is caring, honest, hardworking and always strives for excellence. She believes in the value of community and works at making the Fort Collins community stronger and more inclusive each day,” said Baumgardner.
“Mallory cares deeply about the cafe, the people and community it serves,” says Pam Autio, vice chair of the Board of Directors for the cafe. “She has the utmost integrity and commitment to seeing that the cafe is successful.”
Garneau is the life blood of this Fort Collins nonprofit, and it’s clear that nothing will stop her on her quest for righteousness.
You can view the full FoCo Cafe photo story here.