Coffee and community: The ROCK supports Eagle Rock’s youth

The exterior of The ROCK Coffee Shop in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Sept. 30, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Upon entry, The ROCK Coffee House on Townsend Avenue looks like any other trendy coffee shop: white paint, hardwood tables and an exposed brick wall. Customers work diligently on MacBooks or chat over ambient alt-pop. However, unlike other cafes, The ROCK (Reach Our Community Kids) doubles as a local community center supported by coffee sales, utilizing the broad appeal of a cute cafe to finance community services ranging from movie nights to free tutoring.

Hailey Gil (senior), community outreach coordinator for The ROCK, compares the relationship between the two spaces to a biological cell.

“It’s one big organism,” Gil said. “We’re fueled by the coffee shop mitochondria.”

The coffee shop mitochondria is the powerhouse that fuels The ROCK’s nucleus: its community center. Located adjacent to the coffee shop, the center is a large but comfortable space furnished with couches, bookshelves and a TV. Kids can visit to take advantage of The ROCK’s services or just hang out. According to Gil, The ROCK also hosts Zumba classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and provides a workspace for community organizers.

“It’s definitely a familial feeling,” Gil said. “It’s like this is the living room. It’s like a house — this is the community house.”

Zachary Martires, a barista at The ROCK, makes hot chocolate at The ROCK Coffee Shop in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Sept. 30, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

The ROCK is a nonprofit that has operated in Eagle Rock since 1996. The current President of The ROCK community center, Stephen Kia, explained that two churches in Eagle Rock — Eagle Rock Baptist Church and Eagle Rock Covenant Church — opened the first iteration of The Rock in 1996. What began as a small after-school tutoring program grew into a 501(c)(3) non-profit by 1998. Kia joined The ROCK’s board of directors in 2002, one year after the organization purchased their current space on Townsend. In 2006, Kia took over as president.

Around that time, The ROCK, funded solely by community partners, donations and grants, was struggling, Kia said. It was during this financial lull that Kia had the idea to open a coffee shop whose profits would subsidize the nonprofit. An initial attempt to open this shop dwindled in 2008. Kia stepped down as president in 2013, and efforts continued to fade. When Kia returned to the position in 2018, he was determined to make the coffee shop a reality. He partnered with Ricardo Cruz, who grew up on a coffee farm in Guatemala, to ethically source beans and get the shop up and running.

According to Gil, every dollar spent at the coffee house funds The ROCK’s community programs, whether it’s paying tutors or purchasing microscopes for one of their upcoming science workshops.

“A lot of the time people associate these cutesy trendy coffee shops with gentrification and rising prices and alienating community,” Gil said. “I think it’s refreshing that you can use that enjoyment of the coffee shop aesthetic or enjoyment of those kinds of ‘hipster’ trends and actually contribute to the community instead.”

According to barista Ayra Cruz, customers who come in for the coffee are often curious about the center.

“They ask a lot about our community,” Cruz said. “They’re always just passing by, and they get curious, and then they come in.”

The interior of The ROCK Coffee Shop in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Sept. 30, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Free one-on-one tutoring for elementary, middle and high schoolers is the primary service offered by The ROCK. Tutor Alejandro Molina believes this program has the power to change children’s lives. Molina described an 8-year-old boy whom he tutors regularly.

“He had been moving from school to school. He had even been expelled, and it had to do with his ADHD and depression,” Molina said. “He had a bit of social issues, but as soon as he started coming here, we had a very family-esque feel to it where he could talk about how he was feeling and talk about what exactly was the problem at school.”

For students who need special accommodations, Gil explained, the one-on-one mentorship offered by The ROCK has impacts beyond academics. In the time this student spent with Molina, Gil noticed an improvement in his social skills. He began to model his behavior after Molina’s example, which improved his relationships at home and at school.

Beyond tutoring, The ROCK works with community partners on a variety of projects. For example, beginning in 2006, Kia worked with Occidental College’s Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLICE) department to get Occidental students engaged in Eagle Rock during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. Hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the MLK Day of Service connects volunteers and organizations in honor of MLK’s birthday.

Gil first got involved with The ROCK through the MLK Day of Service in 2018. She stayed on at The ROCK as their special applications manager for another one of their projects, converting the roadway in front of the center into a public plaza in partnership with The Eagle Rock Association (TERA), another Eagle Rock community organization that works to slow down drivers on Figueroa Street. According to Kia, this kind of coalition-building is what makes The ROCK successful.

A plant and coffee cup at The ROCK Coffee Shop in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Sept. 30, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

“There are always ways we can extend past these four walls to show that we’re all part of this community, we’re all in this together,” Kia said.

The ROCK is a Christian organization, but its services are available to anyone who walks through its doors. Religion is not a part of The ROCK’s curriculum, and not all employees are religious. Kia said the phrasing of The ROCK’s mission reflects this attitude.

“We’re not trying to preach, but to show by our actions,” Kia said. “In our little way, we want to contribute to the solution, to help bring economic prosperity to certain communities.”

According to Gil, shared faith is a means for organizing and encouraging service. Gil’s faith helps fuel her commitment to service, and she emphasized that everyone on Occidental’s campus, regardless of religious affiliation, can find ways to be more involved in the Eagle Rock community.

“If I had a message for Oxy students, it would just be: get out into the community in a meaningful way,” Gil said. “Don’t just go and enjoy all the hip, trendy new boutiques and stuff. Get out there and see where you can actually be of service.”

This article was revised Oct. 17, 2019 at 2 p.m. to correct the spelling of Ayra Cruz and Alejandro Molina, as well to correct Hailey Gil’s job title. She was The ROCK’s special applications manager, not their hiring manager.