Got a hankering to travel? You might get the most bang for your buck in the center of Clarkston, Georgia. This little town is a UN refugee resettlement area, now home to folks from the Congo, Iraq, Syria and more. It’s also home to Refuge Coffee, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that operates a coffee shop, catering business, and provides job training for refugees.
In partnership with The Startup Van, we interviewed Refuge Coffee’s founder, Kitti Murray. She walked us—and all our Facebook fans—through Refuge Coffee’s story in a Facebook Live interview. “Refuge really grew out of a neighborhood initiative,” she explained. She and her husband, who was a church pastor for many years and now works in the nonprofit sector, wanted to introduce their refugee neighbors to others in the neighborhood. “We did some block parties and would invite people to our home,” Kitti said. The response was great—the community clearly wanted more connection, more opportunity to build relationships. Kitti also loved coffee and coffee shops, but knew that was lacking in their Clarkston community. An idea started brewing…
Kitti and her husband soon understood another need: job training. “Refugees often have great skills and training from their home countries, but they don’t have opportunities here,” Kitti explained. They might be doctors at home, but it’s a steep, expensive hill to climb to reestablish a practice here in America. Too often, they’re left with less-than-ideal jobs, like those at the chicken processing plant. It’s an hour and a half away from Clarkston, freezing cold, and doesn’t give new arrivals a chance to learn any English, because they don’t speak to anyone during the shifts. “We felt like we wanted to speak to the need to thrive, to build a life,” Kitti said, instead of just surviving. “So we thought, what if we put this idea of a coffee shop together with jobs and with job training?”
That’s exactly what they did. With the support of the community behind them, they raised funds, purchased a truck, and started serving coffee from it two years ago this month. Here, we’ll take a closer look at three of Refuge’s creative funding ideas that keep the lights on and the coffee percolating:
Right from the beginning, Refuge Coffee needed community support to pay for their 501c3 registration. “We did it with crowdfunding,” Kitti explained. They used a platform called Pure Charity led by CEO Mike Rush. “We had already started a small social media presence, and people were beginning to catch onto that. We did a lot of in-home events to raise awareness, and everyone who came to one of those events, they donated through that campaign.” All told, they raised more than $100,000 in funding to get their first coffee truck and get started. “I was amazed that people would give money to an idea,” Kitti said, but this crowdfunding effort showed her just how broad a base of support truly existed for the Refuge Coffee initiative.
And when Refuge Coffee had come to fruition and was ready to grow, that broad base showed up again. Last fall, Kitti found out they may have the opportunity to purchase a physical location, and the community rallied to raise around $130,000 in funding to support that dream. “It was pretty scrappy, and we’re still pretty scrappy,” Kitti said.
Beyond donations and revenue from their products, the Refuge team is always coming up with creative ideas to raise more money and connect the community even further. When we spoke with Kitti, they were planning a 5K run for more than 1000 runners. Registering for the event was another way for customers and neighbors to engage with Refuge Coffee, but it also created another opportunity for Refuge to give back. “We gave away over 100 registrations,” Kitti said. “250 of those registrations were for a one-mile fun run, and we did it absolutely free. We really want to err on the side of generosity whenever we can.”
That’s evident in another unique event they put on, called Shop Refuge. They curate donated and new clothes from the community and local boutiques, and then they host a huge sale where each piece is priced at $2. When they started this event, Kitti said, community members would say things like “I’ll volunteer, but I’m not going to shop—that’s for the refugees.” Kitti was quick to clarify to them, “No, there’s no us and them. We are all going to shop, and it’s going to be so much fun, and you’re going to meet so many people.” Sure enough, about 60 percent of the shoppers at the event are refugees and the rest are other members of the Clarkston community—everyone comes together to enjoy the event and support Refuge Coffee. Some refugees are even purchasing these affordable clothes to send to family back home. All this generosity spills over, even beyond Refuge Coffee. “We send half of the proceeds to a group in Iraq that helps Syrian refugees, so refugees here get to help raise money for refugees there,” Kitti said. In this way, they support their own business and the overall positive mission of Refuge.
Refuge Coffee truly is a community effort, and it’s a two-way street. “We’re learning the value of monthly giving,” Kitti said. “There are a lot of people who support us for $15 a month—that makes a huge difference and helps us have sustainability.” And that generosity goes right back to the people who need it most. “We gave all our refugee trainees bonuses at the end of the year last year, and we pay them well,” Kitti said.
That circle of support is a strong one. “When you want to do good,” Kitti explained, “you do good with people, not for them. Refugees are heroic people, and they’ve not only been through a lot, but they also want to give back. We quickly cycle our job trainees into training others—they do the work, they promote the mission, and they’re really the reason it works.” They’re assets to the community, Kitti said, and each day offers another opportunity to create a refuge together.