by Alice Campbell
‘In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive. At the end of life, we need others to survive. But here’s the secret, in between, we need others as well’ – Morrie Schwarz
One of the little rituals we have at our office, is to stop at U&Co Café each day. The coffee shop is located, along with half-a-dozen other businesses, at my local neighbourhood shops, just a few blocks from where I live. And while there is nothing particularly remarkable about stopping at a local coffee shop to fill up on caffeine, there is something very remarkable about U&Co which – sadly – also seems out of place in today’s world.
I have lived here for seven years, and three years ago Michael and Amy took over what used to be a little florist shop to follow their dream of opening their own business and turning it into a café. And the reason I know this detail about their lives is that Michael and Amy have built a thriving business because of one core concept: everyone is welcome.
Even on a rainy day our local car-park is full. People gravitate toward this place where everyone is welcomed with such warmth and friendliness. On any given day, people coming in and out of U&Co include young tradies, retirees in their lycra, mums who have just dropped off their kids at school, the weekend Harley Davidson riders, the local eccentric lady who looks like she has lived a very hard life and has difficulty speaking, the local high school kids, young hipsters (and a few older ones too), teachers from the primary school, public servants (it is Canberra after all), the Alzheimer’s social group, men in suits, women suits, people in turbans, and – always – many, many babies and children.
The coffee at U&Co is fantastic. But what is special about this place is the warmth and kindness generated by Michael and Amy, creates an atmosphere of a gloriously sticky social glue: I have come to know and talk so many new people in my neighbourhood at U&CO, who I would otherwise never have met, simply because going into such a welcoming environment seems to make the rest of us feel so much more open and welcoming too.
All the staff seem to know everyone’s name, and their regular order. But it goes way beyond this. The need to connect with others, to know the people we live with, is perhaps as important when we become a new parent as at any other time of our lives. Yet, so many new parents say that social isolation is one of the most significant challenges they face. We make a lot of noise about the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child” – yet we seem to have lost the art of building this village, or even really understanding what the village is. A village that is truly capable of raising a child, is one that is also capable of supporting parents, in one of the most challenging and transformative times of life. A village capable of raising a child is not a ghetto where women are bunched together with a bunch of other women they don’t know, simply because they happen to have babies born around the same time. A village is a much more diverse place where new parents also have relationships and connections with parents of older children, grandparents, schools and local services, and a place where they (and their children) can be welcomed as themselves.
At U&Co, the little boy who spills his milkshake is never treated as a nuisance – he receives a new one in a jiffy, mess cleaned up with a smile, and an extra marshmallow for good measure. The mum with a screaming baby is never met with rolled eyes and sighs – Michael is just as likely to wander over and offer to hold the baby while mum has a desperately needed moment to herself. And then, because of the way Michael and Amy conduct their relationships with the community, another customer – perhaps a mum with older kids or a grandparent – will feel confident enough to say something reassuring about how hard these days can be. Connection made. Another step closer to the village. The more I watch how Michael and Amy respond to little babies and children in their café the more I am in awe of what they are building in a very practical and real way. Building a village for raising children, is not only a place that holds children, but one that welcomes and connects parents, and everyone else too.
This hit home when I spoke to Michael and Amy about the impact their business has on the community. They said that the most rewarding part of running U&Co is that, after three years of coming to know the community, they are now seeing children who were just little babies in the beginning about to head off to pre-school for the first time. Michael and Amy offer such an important insight into the role of our relationships with each other. Their work to build real connections with their customers has resulted in a loyal following. In turn, this has boosted the activity of surrounding business, in what was previously a little suburban corner slowly dying. We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that for people to do well – to be happy and safe and to have the things we need – we need to do the “big” things first. We need to invest in “big” business. We need to “get the economy going”. We need policies to cut welfare. We need to elect the ‘right’ person. We need to get expert consultants with two PhDs and an American accent. Michael and Amy prove the opposite. Build the village first. Make it possible for all people – including children and parents – to be connected, to be welcome, to be supported…and everything else will follow.
Alice Campbell is the CEO of Baby in Mind, a charity organisation supporting parent-baby relationships and infant mental health development.