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From hot cocoa to friendship, area Starbucks employees reach out to the homeless

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Project Dominic's Emily Hilldrup (left) chats with Wanda Lawson. (Robert A. Martin/The Free Lance-Star)


While some Fredericksburg store owners complained that homeless people were hurting business, the employees and customers of a Starbucks reached out last winter to help one man living in the woods.

That man often wandered into the Massaponax Starbucks, wearing ratty cutoff sweat pants and flip–flops, even when temperatures dipped below freezing. He walked with the aid of a single crutch.

Customers often bought him a hot drink. And manager Emily Hilldrup once arranged a ride for the man when it was 17 degrees.

Regional Manager Diana Kelly oversees 15 Starbucks from Spotsylvania to Woodbridge and met the homeless man while visiting the Massaponax store.

Kelly bought him a hot chocolate.

And a regional effort to help the area’s homeless was born.

“I never realized there were people so down and out that were living in the woods,” Kelly said.

She talked with Mary Hamm, who manages the Starbucks in the Westwood Shopping Center.

Hamm was well aware that more than 200 local people lack homes. She and her three daughters often make sandwiches to hand out to the homeless.

Hamm wanted to do more. And now that she was aware of the problem, so did Kelly.

The pair brainstormed ideas for helping the homeless. They decided to pair up with a local ministry, The Prayer Furnace.

That group sends teams out to homeless camps about once a week. Often, they bring pastries donated by local restaurants such as Starbucks.

Hamm and Kelly put out donation bins in area Starbucks stores, next to the displays of bottled water and organic snacks. They asked for toiletries, socks and snacks.

And customers responded. Some offered money. One, a lawyer, helped the women create a nonprofit organization.

The women called the effort Project Dominic—after the name they gave the homeless Massaponax man who inspired their work. They soon lost track of him, after he got sick and was hospitalized.

They were meeting many other people living in the nearby woods off U.S. 1 in Spotsylvania.

At least once a month, a team of Starbucks employees meets at the Westwood coffee shop and assembles clear plastic bags filled with soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, deodorant, bottled water, socks, toilet paper, potato chips, instant coffee and bug spray.

“What they’re doing is incredible,” said Jason Hughes, who leads The Prayer Furnace’s outreach to the homeless. “It’s an answer to prayer.”

Project Dominic’s efforts have come a long way from that first cup of hot chocolate.

Hughes, Kelly and Hilldrup recently headed out on a sweltering afternoon, Kelly’s SUV packed with bags of toiletries.

Sitting in the “living room” of John Worthington, the trio handed out the bags and bottles of Ethos water, a Starbucks brand which donates money to build wells in Africa.

Standing under a carefully constructed tarp-covered patio, Worthington embraced each visitor as he accepted the bag.

“Not only does this gift help, it gives us hope that we’re not alone,” Worthington said.

“Hope that people do care about us,” agreed Wanda Lawson, who was visiting Worthington while looking for a new place to camp.

The nearby encampment she shared with boyfriend Dudley Burgess had recently been visited by Spotsylvania Sheriff’s deputies, and the couple was ordered to move.

“All of our stuff is there, I just don’t know what to do,” Lawson said.

Hughes, Hilldrup and Kelly offered to help her find another site and move their belongings.

But Kelly doesn’t want to just relocate Lawson and Burgess’ tent.

“Everyday, we hope and pray that you get out of these woods,” she told the group.

“Oh, it’s going to happen,” Worthington replied. “Times are hard now, and the choices I’ve made have put me here. It’s up to me to climb out, but I’ll get back on top again.”

Kelly is determined to help. She has connected Lawson with Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a local homeless outreach with a staff member to walk people through getting disability benefits.

Lawson has just recently applied; she is disabled after suffering repeated beatings from an abusive relationship. She said that she stayed with the man because she feared living in the woods.

“I just wanted a roof over my head, but I didn’t want to pay that price,” Lawson said as she leaned over to kiss Burgess. She hopes to marry him one day and get a house, where they can fight over who gets to cook. In the woods, Burgess is the chef with their propane grill. But Lawson makes a sausage gravy that everyone raves about.

For now, their home-cooked meals are often limited to whatever food is in the bags Kelly delivers.

But Lawson said that the bags give more than sustenance.

“It started out just trying to fill a need with these bags,” Kelly said.

“But y’all put your love into it,” Lawson replied.

“It’s really not about the bags anymore,” Kelly agreed.

“It’s about the people,” Lawson said.

As the the trio left, Hilldrup hugged Lawson. The Starbucks manager’s blue eyes welled with tears as she said, “Please know there are people who care—I do. And things are going to get better.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973

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