Longmont (Colo.) High School students retreat for lunch to First Congregational UCC's nearby Trojan Café. © 2001 Adam Welch photo.
What do you get when you mix one part community strife, one part hungry teenagers and a large helping of a church's outreach?
In the bustling Colorado community of Longmont, you get the solution to what could have been a more serious problem: a one-of-a-kind eatery for Longmont High School students who, just over two years ago, were scrambling to find a quick meal. But instead of being located in the neighboring strip mall, the Trojan Café—named for the school's mascot—is in the fellowship hall of First Congregational UCCjust across the street.
It all began with an overcrowded high school that was built to hold 1,200 students, but now has 1,800. There wasn't enough room for all of them to eat lunch at school during the single, 45-minute break. At lunchtime, they would "erupt and take off" to small, assorted establishments down the street or to the grocery store, says Kris Dillon, who manages the café.
"Before, kids would sometimes steal from the Pantry Market [a local store]," says junior Scott Flanagan. In addition, the students' patronage overwhelmed the restaurants. Some liked to zoom through the surrounding neighborhoods, leaving behind cigarette butts and assorted other trash. There were confrontations between students and business owners. Local police were called in more than once.
As the community wrestled with the problem, it called in mediators from nearby Denver, who met with students, neighbors, business owners and other members of the community. Making their task even more difficult, the meeting was the day after the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Grief over this tragedy increased the tension. The businesses felt that the daily flood of students was scaring away clientele, and neighbors complained about the litter.
That's when First Congregational stepped in to help. The Rev. Michael J. Leite, co-pastor, and church member Don Alspaugh took the issue to the church. After much debate, the church decided to open its doors to the students and determined that the project should have its own board of directors and manager. A private, nonprofit organization was formed, with initial funding from a number of area groups, plus an anonymous donor from First Congregational. On Sept. 13, 1999, the Trojan Café opened to an overwhelmingly positive response, serving from 50 to 100 students a day. Today, that average is closer to 200.
Community reaction, Dillon says proudly, has "gone from adversarial to cooperative. There's less vandalism and fewer fights." Local merchants, including some of the restaurants that had complained about the students before, provide food for the café.
"The food here is cheaper [most lunches range from $2 to $3] and better than at school," says Flanagan. Dillon works with the merchants to keep the pizza, salad, bagels, tacos and just-add-water cups of noodles at prices teenagers can afford.
An initial mixed reaction within the congregation has given way to "warm-hearted support," says Leite. Many church members even volunteer at the café.
Students love the café and its teen-friendly atmosphere that often includes booming music and tables with games and markers as a centerpiece. "I prefer to go there for lunch," says Whitney Williams, who eats at the café at least once or twice a week.
Many, like sophomore Brad Jacobi, go every day. "There are nice people and nice prices in a nice area," says Jacobi. A few of the students, including Flanagan, "work for food," says manager Dillon.
"Volunteering teaches you responsibility. It's more rewarding than having a normal job," Flanagan says. There was some question about whether the original funding, which was for two years, could be sustained. But it came through with relative ease, due in no small measure to the fact that the community and the students have gained a mutual trust.
"They [the Trojan Café] are a part of our ministry, not just renters," Leite says.
Davis, 15, is a member of Greenboro (N.C.) Congregational UCC. She was a staff writer during General Synod 2001 in Kansas City, Mo.