Grief and loss have been defining aspects of Anna-Maija Lee’s life. As a teenager, she struggled with mental health challenges. As an adult, she gave a TEDx Talk titled, “It’s Grief to Me,” highlighting grief experiences that impacted her well into her adult years.

Despite the amount of grief and loss she experienced, she always had an uncanny sense of hope. While working as a social worker within the St. Cloud School District, Lee worked with students impacted by trauma, grief, and loss. It became her mission to help facilitate skill-building in teens so they can become successful adults.

“I knew what it was like to struggle as a teenager,” Lee said. “I didn’t want others to struggle like I did.”

One of the things she noticed with many students – especially those with trauma or mental health challenges – is they lacked the skills to transition from youth to adulthood. In her experience, youth need more help with soft skills and non-academic skills. This includes but is not limited to self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and responsible decision-making skills.

Teens with trauma or mental health challenges sometimes require additional support in jobs. From her research and what she heard from youth in the community, there are limited career opportunities that offer this extra support in Central Minnesota.

She decided to take action.

Lee knew firsthand that you could become a healthy and successful adult despite experiencing trauma, grief, and loss. She gives a lot of credit to just one person who helped shape her life.

As a single parent, Lee’s mom had to work 60-plus hours to provide for her. This meant Lee spent a lot of time with Mrs. C, a woman who was hired to babysit her. Mrs. C listened to her, validated her, and gave Lee a sense of belonging.

Throughout Lee’s life, the foundation of hope and faith she received from Mrs. C helped her get past her traumatic experiences and thrive.

“As a teenager, I struggled with a lot of anger and mental health challenges,” Lee said. “I kinda found myself in the local coffee shop. That’s where I spent a lot of my time in high school. It was a safe haven for me.”

Owning a coffee shop was a dream that continued to resurface for Lee. Nearly four years ago, she got the idea of combining her two passions. “What if I could take something that is such a unifier – like coffee and use that as a tool to employ teenagers and teach them how to be healthy adults,” she said.

She started developing the company, For The Love Project, LLC. Her goal is to help create a stronger Central Minnesota community.

Community Coffee Cart is For The Love Project’s first venture. Their motto is “Coffee With A Shot Of Purpose.”
The coffee cart will employ teenagers in the community and offer them supportive job training while also receiving social-emotional support. It will be a safe place for teenagers to learn, make money, grow, and be supported.

“By supportive training, my goal is to be able to offer a wrap-around model of training,” said Lee. “To be able to look at the whole individual and help them navigate any barriers that may keep them from keeping a job.”

Those barriers could be mental health challenges, homelessness, housing, food scarcity, or something else.

“If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in order for a person to achieve success, their basic physiological needs have to be met,” Lee explained. “ If someone is trying to hold a job, for example, but doesn’t feel safe due to being homeless, it’s going to be difficult to keep that job.”

Lee also plans on teaching money management skills for the teens. This includes budgeting, wellness, and citizenship. She wants youth to learn how to give back to their community and have the satisfaction of being a part of something bigger than themselves.

Ultimately, the goal is for teenagers to gain the necessary soft skills and non-academic skills they need to transition into adulthood.

“The biggest gap I’ve seen is teenagers who are employed but don’t last in the job because they do not have the skills yet required,” Lee said. “This program could benefit a lot of youth in this area.” Many of the students Lee worked with at the school district had plans implanted in their academic setting. A student may be on one of these plans because of a learning disability or a mental health diagnosis. These plans offer added support to help the student succeed within the school setting.

“These initiatives are being implemented in schools not only in the state of Minnesota but around the world,” Lee said. “I want to complement these initiatives and bring them to life in a job setting, helping to create a bridge of skills from the inside of schools to the outside.” As a licensed social worker, Lee will work alongside the teenagers and support them as they develop strong social skills and overcome barriers. Community Coffee Cart will not just be a supportive job program but will also work to bring unity to the community. “You are not defined by the losses you’ve experienced,” Lee said. Community Coffee Cart is her solution to
help teens thrive.

In all her research, Lee has found that social connection is vital – especially a healthy relationship with an adult. The lessons and support teenagers receive can help sustain them throughout their lives. By reflecting on her own journey, Lee knows the importance of being a mentor to youth. She’s made it her career. With Community Coffee Cart, she plans to continue to be someone teens in the community can develop a valuable trusting, yet professional connection.

As the name suggests, the coffee cart will be mobile. The business will be available for hire at various events and will be popping up around the community. Community Coffee Cart will specialize in serving crafted espresso drinks and tea. Lee also wants drinks served to reflect the community. She’s using spices in her drinks that represent the various Central Minnesota cultures to bring hope and unity to the Greater St. Cloud community. Some of these spices include cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.

“We’re very mindful of who we’re serving,” said Lee. “In a time where there is so much division in our world, it’s my way of adding to and celebrating the beauty of the various cultures that make up Central Minnesota.” In addition, 5 percent of the profits will go back into the community to help teens and promote positive mental health and wellness. “I’m doing this for my teens,” Lee said. “I’m doing this for my former students.”

In the first year, Lee is focusing on building the foundation for the Community Coffee Cart to be successful so that she can implement all of her plans. Community Coffee Cart is set to open in August with plans to start employing teenagers next year. You can learn more about For The Love Project and Community Coffee Cart by visiting https://fortheloveproject.com.