Located in the space formerly occupied by the Racine Arts Council -- 505 Sixth St. -- the sisters have turned the storefront on its head, installing a service bar and coffee shop on the right, and a retail store on the left. It is an attractive, open space, with brick walls on either side. And it's much more than meets the eye, with a focus on alleviating poverty here and around the world.
The Just Trade retail store and the Cup of Hope coffeehouse serve double-duty. Yes, they are both what they seem -- but they are also an extension of the Racine Dominicans' ministry that began here in 1862 when the first sisters taught German immigrants.
"We are very aware of the needs and concerns here; we have a long-term interest in the city," said Linda McClenahan O.P., executive director of what is called the HOPES Center. "Today we have people living in poverty, and we have skills to help people move beyond poverty. We are also very aware that 20- and 30-year-olds are searching. We want to create a space where they might find answers to their questions. Spirituality, poverty, education are each a piece of it."
And so, underlying the store and coffeehouse is the foundation of a social entrepreneurial ministry. "People want their work to have meaning, something that brings about good," said McClenahan.
The HOPES Center -- it stands for
- Peace and Justice
The retail store and coffeehouse each have paid managers, but both will be staffed as well with volunteers. "Giving people the opportunity to do meaningful volunteer work benefits the community," McClenahan says.
Casual customers may be unaware of the Racine Dominicans' role in the store. "People are not as aware that there are sisters these days," she said. "We're not running around in habits. But we want to be engaged with people, bringing God's love into the world." There are 145 Dominican sisters in Racine, and about a third of them live out in the community where the problems are. She herself lives on 13th and Villa.
A lot of effort -- and knowledge -- have gone into creation of the Hopes Center. McClenahan, for example, is a "second-career" sister: before she became a Dominican eight years ago, and added the Order of Preachers designation to her name, she had a career in retail and restaurant management. Lisa Kane O.P. is another second-career sister working on the project; she was an inventory control specialist for 20 years who also has retail experience. And, as a non-profit, the center has received CBDG and HUD grants (and was also supported by two "humongous" rummage sales this summer that raised almost $3,000.) The center has a "mentor store," in Bloomington, IL, that has carried out the same mission for 30 years.
There's also a board of directors; its chair is Carol Wester O.P., former principal of St. Catherine's High School. McClenahan is also an Americorps/Vista volunteer working on poverty issues.
But what you'll see when you visit the store is home-baked treats and a coffee maker in the coffeehouse half, and colorful hand-made goods from around the world in the retail store. Each of the items for sale has a story:
- Bright and cheerful greeting cards were made by children orphaned by the Rwandan massacres;
- Baskets, above, were made by women in Ghana who gather the straw, dry it, make it into artistic baskets;
- Purses, when examined closely, turn out to be made from old juice boxes, carefully woven by women in the Philippines;
- Bath salts and soy candles were made by women in a Chicago homeless shelter;
- Angels of Hope, like the one below, come from Guatemala.
Fair Trade certification is carefully monitored. First, there's Equal Exchange, an international company for the fair trade of coffee, tea and sugar, which helped the Hopes Center with technical support. It works to be sure the people who grow the crops are treated with dignity, and make a living wage. And the International Fair Trade Federation has a list of 200 certified vendors all over the world. McClenahan has done her homework.
The retail store isn't fully stocked yet, but already has had customers -- and positive feedback. Someone walked in this week and said, "There's just tremendous energy here."
And they've barely opened...