Starbucks employees lend a hand to Fifth Ward
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2012 12:10
While one normally expects Starbucks to provide coffee, many of the coffee chain’s workers were recently on the streets of Houston for a different reason. On Oct. 6, nearly 5,500 Starbucks employees, with the help of about 30 Rice students, volunteered at a variety of service projects in Houston’s Fifth Ward in an effort to revitalize one of Houston’s poorest communities.
The service day was a part of the three-day Starbucks Global Leadership Conference in Houston, which was attended by Starbucks store managers and executives from around the country, according to Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation intern Francesca Schley (Sid Rich ’12).
Starbucks partnered with Fifth Ward CRC, the main nonprofit for the area, after selecting Houston for the location of their second conference of this kind, the first being held in New Orleans in 2005, according to Schley.
“[Starbucks] was deciding between Detroit and Houston for the conference,” Schley said. “But Detroit has already been getting a lot of nonprofit attention because of how bad their economy is doing, and [Starbucks] believed Houston also really needed the help.”
Community Bridges, a fellowship program combining academic coursework with hands-on community service in the Fifth Ward, organized Rice students’ involvement in the event, according to Community Bridges Coordinator Christina Rojas (Brown ’12).
“Our main program is the fellowship, but this semester we’re also exploring ways to engage more of the Rice community,” Rojas said. “About half of the students were fellows, and the other half were volunteers.”
Community Bridges fellow Adriana Bolivar helped paint houses and build a community garden during the service day.
“The goal was to make the Fifth Ward more attractive, so that businesses would be more likely to open there,” Bolivar, a Wiess College senior, said.
Schley said projects included building a playground and an urban garden, painting buildings and homes, and adding signs to storefronts.
“We gave the neighborhood a facelift,” Schley said.
McMurtry College junior Bailey Firszt said she decided to volunteer after reading about the event on the McMurtry listserv.
“I signed up because I thought it would be eye-opening,” Firszt said. “We live in a nice area, but there are a lot of areas in Houston we aren’t exposed to.”
Firszt, who also assisted with the urban garden, said the volunteers were enthusiastic about their work, even though it mostly consisted of moving heavy cinderblocks.
“There was loud music playing, oldies that everyone knew,” Firszt said. “Once the project got going, people were really excited. It was definitely rewarding.”
Rojas said the Starbucks employees were great to work with.
“There was initially a division between Rice students and the Starbucks volunteers, but by the end, they were telling us stories about the craziest drink orders,” Rojas said. “They were awesome. And hilarious.”
Schley said she thinks the service projects will have a big impact, even though the event only lasted three days.
“The Fifth Ward is a food desert; there’s really nowhere to get food other than fried chicken,” Schley said. “The community garden will encourage people’s interest in eating fresh produce, plus build relationships and give the community a sense of pride.”
Furthermore, the new playground provides an area for kids, a basic need which had not previously existed in the Fifth Ward, according to Schley.
Both Bolivar and Firszt said the event could have been better organized.
“When we first got there, it was really chaotic,” said Bolivar. “We had to lead the Starbucks employees to the different project sites, and some of the groups had up to 70 people.”
Despite the initial inefficiency, Bolivar said she thought their work really helped the community.
“The homeowners [of the refurbished houses] were really thankful,” Bolivar said. “This didn’t happen at the house I was working at specifically, but I know at some of the houses [the homeowners] got pretty emotional.”