Story by: Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography: Terry Johnston
Shirley Hernandez leans in over the old wooden barrel and inhales the scents of a soldier’s encampment from the Civil War — whiskey, gun powder, coffee.
The 10-year-old wrinkles her nose at the coffee.
“That smells bad,” Shirley says.
Lorena Slager, chaperoning this trip to the Grand Rapids Public Museum, looks aghast.
“Hey, coffee is not a bad smell,” she says.
It better not be.
“I smell like it all the time,” Slager confides later.
Slager owns The Sparrows Coffee Tea and Newsstand at 1035 Wealthy SE, which explains that scent that wafts about her.
She’s also executive director of the Grand Rapids Creative Youth Center, which explains why she’s at the public museum with six middle school kids in tow.
The coffee shop pays her bills. The youth center kids feed her soul.
“Miss Lori,” as the kids call her, organizes about 20 volunteers at the Creative Youth Center, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youngsters improve their writing skills.
This group of middle schoolers at the public museum is the center’s Press Club — budding journalists who head out into the city to experience great things, then write stories about them. Their stories are published in The Rapidian, which, the kids agree, is awesome.
One of their recent assignments was interviewing Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.
“They were asking tough questions, about immigration and the economy,” Slager says proudly.
“We write what we see, we use laptops, they publish it in The Rapidian,” says 12-year-old Dulce Loredo, as she munches a snack in the public museum’s cafe. ”It feels like we’re actual reporters.”
“Maybe somebody will read it and say, ‘Wow, this person’s really good,’” Dulce says. “It might lead to other opportunities.”
“They have a lot to say,” Slager says of her budding journalists.
In addition to the Press Club, the Creative Youth Center teaches creative writing to 6 to 9 year-olds once a week during the school year and twice a week during the summer. They write short stories and poetry and Slager binds their work into books, so they’re published authors.
Slager cheerfully steers the Press Club kids through every floor of the museum, handing over her camera so they can take photos, urging them to interview visitors to get quotes for their stories, patiently waiting while they gawk at just about everything.
Antonio takes a photo of a bullfrog skeleton. They marvel at the mummies. They press buttons to hear bird calls. They stare at a replica of a drop of swamp water and 12-year-old Avelycia grimaces at all the yucky looking stuff that lives inside it. They gleefully put on a puppet show and Slager applauds. She buys them freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, just because.
Later, after driving a few of the kids home after the busy afternoon, Slager’s happy, but whipped.
“Who knew the museum was so exhausting?” she quips.
A few days later, Slager, 32, plops down at a table at her shop, The Sparrows, where the old floors creak, glass jars of loose tea line the counter and the magazine collection is so diverse that unless you’re extremely cool, you won’t know what some of them are.
Her world is butterscotch and Irish cream lattes and almond coconut mochas, but once upon a time, Slager wanted to be an art teacher. She has an art education degree from Calvin College, but when she graduated, there weren’t any jobs.
So she worked at the gift shop at Frederik Meijer Gardens and shelved books at Schuler Books and Music and found places to teach kids art on the side, from community education classes at Kendall College of Art and Design to the Cook Arts Center at Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities.
A lot of the other artists she knew didn’t want to teach the littlest kids, she says — they wanted high schoolers.
“I think the little kids are way more fun,” Slager says with a smile. “They’re so happy to be there. I love watching their creative abilities come out.”
In the midst of all this she got married, and she and her then-husband and a friend decided to open a coffee shop.
The trio of entrepreneurs found the perfect space in an old hardware store, with tall bead board ceilings and creaky wood floors and built-in hardware shelves that would perfectly cradle magazines.
It was 2007 and the Wealthy Street neighborhood was on the rise — the Meanwhile Bar had just opened. The vibe was good.
“We decided to go for it,” Slager says.
Now the neighborhood booms.
“I feel like I spend half my life waiting to cross Wealthy Street,” she says.
In 2009 she and her husband divorced and by 2010 Slager had taken over the shop herself.
“I wanted a sense of community,” she says. “A place where people would meet each other and maybe start projects together. And that’s happened. We’ve even had people meet here and get married.”
“And we try very hard to make delicious coffee and tea.”
Their most popular drink? The Dirty Hairy — Earl Grey tea with soy milk and honey.
A “local first” girl, Slager serves locally roasted espresso and stocks products by local businesses. You can buy beaded earrings by a local jewelry maker, a mug made by a Heartside artist, a locally baked scone studded with chocolate chips.
Behind the counter crafting a latte, she’s like an artist, telling how the steamed milk should look like wet paint — not foamy — and she holds the milk close to the top of the espresso as she pours to create a more intricate pattern.
At first, Slager worked 40 hours a week behind the counter. Now that business is stable, she has five employees and works there herself about 20 hours a week, devoting more time to running the Creative Youth Center.
Cecile Fehsenfeld, owner of Schuler Books, asked Slager if she would co-found, then run the Creative Youth Center, modeled after a similar program Fehsenfeld discovered in Chicago.
Slager loves the adventure of it, the purpose, the sheer fun. She writes short stories. Words are fun.
“I realized I wanted to make an effort to be involved in the community,” she says. “To help make it interesting.
“I love hanging out with kids,” she says. “They’re hilarious and entertaining and they give me the best stories.”
And they need this, she says.
“These kids are going through things nobody should have to go through,” Slager says quietly. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Some of her young writing students live in the neighborhoods around the Baxter Community Center, others in the Grandville Avenue and Hall Street area.
“One boy told me, ‘I like our apartment.’ Then he started listing all the people who lived with him– mom, dad, sister, brother, cousins, aunt. The apartment had one bedroom and his sister was the only one who had a bed.
“I thought, ‘We need to find a way to make your life easier when you grow up.’”
One kid told her about “the visa people.”
“He wasn’t talking about the credit card,” she says.
Their lives are dogged by poverty and violence.
“Once I couldn’t sleep for a week, I was so worried about one of them,” she says.
“I want to be a positive adult in their lives, to show them you can be successful,” Slager says, taking a sip of her coffee. “This will give them the confidence to do higher things.
“Working with them reminds me to pay attention to the things around me,” Slager says. “To experience things more completely.”
She urges her young students to do the same. When one girl‘s father died, Slager gave her a journal to write in.
“Writing is cathartic,” she says. “I told her, ‘Get it all out.’”
When another won a writing award at school, she brought her to The Sparrows and the two celebrated with pizza at a table out on the sidewalk.
Slager is a runner who loves yoga. She loves walking her dog, Cali Bean, a shepherd lab mix, and lives with her boyfriend Dustin Tinney in a cool condo that used to be a school. She’s vegetarian and owns a share in a community supported agriculture farm.
She has great tricks up her sleeve, like “story cubes” — dice with pictures on each side. Roll ‘em, and write a story about whatever images pop up.
She grew up in Oak Forest, a suburb of Chicago. She’s the youngest and has six older brothers.
“I was well-protected growing up,” she says with a laugh. “They always joked that they’d beat up my boyfriends, but they never did.”
She moved to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College, and liked it here so much she never left.
Her brother Todd lives in Grand Rapids but the rest of her family is in Illinois, and they keep trying to convince her to move back.
But Antonio and Dulce and Edgar and Donny want her to stay here.
“She’s a pretty nice lady,” 11-year-old Antonio Jaimes observes, taking a snack break in the public museum’s cafe.
“She’s friendly and she’s careful,” 9-year-old Edgar Jaimes says.
“She takes care of us.”
“She’s kind,” 11-year-old Donny Hernandez says. “And joyful.”
“And brave” Edgar adds. “She’s brave to take a lot of kids places. Some people are too scared to do that.”
The kids will be happy to hear that brave Miss Lori will stick around for a while.
She might get her master’s degree in education one day, she muses. But for now, the steamed milk is flowing, kids are writing, and things are good.
There’s a sign in Slager’s office drawn by one of her young Creative Youth Center students, 6-year-old Nathan. It reads: “I love my writing teacher.”
“That keeps me going,” Slager says. That, and the light roast of the day. Black.
Terri Finch Hamilton is a freelance writer and a former reporter and writer at The Grand Rapids Press.