NORTH LAWNDALE — James Ross, general manager of Hope Cafe in North Lawndale, believes in second chances. So much so that he employs ex-felons like himself to work at Hope Cafe alongside him.
"I got guys here in the community who couldn't get work anywhere else," Ross said. "There's guys who have felony records like myself. I know what it is like. The best way to stop a bullet is a job."
Hope Cafe, 2431 W. Roosevelt Road, will celebrate one year in business next month. Ross, who spent time in prison for for theft and drugs, said that most of the coffee shop's patrons live in North Lawndale.
"I think people are inspired by us being here. It takes a lot to get footing here," Ross said. "We've been talking to some of the local initiatives in the neighborhood. It brings hope to the neighborhood. They see a local business that's giving back."
Most of the proceeds from the coffee shop go to Chicago Hope Academy, a Christian high school that helps underserved students become ready for college. The school, 2189 W. Bowler St., was founded by Bob Muzikowski, the inspiration for Keanu Reeves' character in the 2001 film, "Hardball."
Muzikowski, who once spent time behind bars for a bar fight, said the school owns the coffee shop, which is doing well financially. He said the school-local business relationship is rooted in his Christian faith.
"People talk about Christianity, but we actually do it," Muzikowski said." We don't take one dime from the government. We solicit funds from donors."
Some of the school's students volunteer at the coffee shop, Ross said.
Ross, 33, said the lure of the street life is tough for many ex-felons to shake. He said Muzikowski approached him about opening the coffee shop in order to toss a lifeline to an old friend.
"I was in between getting out of what I was doing and getting married. I needed something that was steady and during the day," Ross said. "When you're married, you don't want to work at night. Bob said, 'Let's get the coffee house started.'"
Hope Cafe also hosts Alcoholics' Anonymous meetings and Bible Study along with wedding, bridal showers and church fundraisers. Ross credits his Christian faith for helping him stay on the straight and narrow.
"I was trying to get away from the streets. I was sick and tired of living this lifestyle," Ross said. "I came to the lord. A friend told to come to the Lord. It's been seven years I've been walking with him. I haven't regretted it."
Ross also said that working and having a routine keeps him off the streets.
"When you're working for that paycheck, you're tired," Ross said. "You don't have time to mess around in the streets."
Kenard Crosby, 57 is an employee of Hope Cafe. He too has a criminal background. He said being gainfully employed can help ex-felons reintegrate themselves into society.
"That would cut down on the violence. It would give people some hope," said Crosby, a Hyde Park resident. "If they don't have something to look forward to, they will go right back into jail. Places like this helps."
Muzikowski said more businesses ought get involved in the schools in their communities.
"We need to open more faith-based schools," Muzikowski said. "We don't need more cops. We need to take it on ourselves."
The Hope Cafe plans to hold a one-year anniversary celebration next month. An exact date has yet to be determined, Ross said.
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