Cup of Love: Coffee Talk at The Women’s Center

Katie Koon and friends serve up sunny mornings in downtown Raleigh with a weekly breakfast tradition
by CC Parker | photography by Tyler Cunningham 

Aproned and smiling, barista Katie Koon takes coffee orders. Cream and sugar? A dollop of Reddi-wip? Make it a mocha? She knows most guests by name, and as Koon serves up the coffees, she checks in with their lives: How’s the week going? The kids? The job search? Her customers settle into their favorite tables and begin catching up with friends.

But Koon is not your typical barista, and this is not your typical coffee shop. It’s a special Thursday morning tradition at The Women’s Center downtown.

Located just behind the train station on West Street, the WC serves as a day shelter for women living on Raleigh’s streets — a place to shower, pick up supplies, and receive services such as job counseling and medical care. “The Women’s Center provides a warm, safe environment to help women get back on their feet and find hope for a new life,” says Koon. Along with her friend Betty Nelson, Koon helms the full-service coffee bar, with breakfast served to order, every Thursday. 

This coffee service has been happening at the WC for four years, says Koon. The idea evolved out of a weekly Bible study luncheon that was held at the nearby Alexander YMCA on Hillsborough Street. That study drew a regular crowd of displaced women, and friendships between the volunteers and the guests formed. In time, the leaders realized that they offered their guests plenty of food, but not enough time to catch up. Koon and Nelson were looking for a regular time and place to meet up and visit with these friends. The “coffee talk” idea evolved into creating an opportunity for that desired extra time with these friends, and The Women’s Center was the perfect venue.

Caring for Raleigh’s homeless women is not a new idea, Koon emphasizes. It’s been happening under the dynamic leadership of many Raleigh women, including Reggie Edwards at the Encouraging Place, a non-profit ministry which has served women and families through camps and community development for over a decade.
My introduction to the weekly coffee was through Nelson, a dear friend of mine. She’d been talking about these ladies for years. And a few months ago, when I asked about being part of the fun, she said they could always use an extra set of hands — and would I be willing to bring a dozen hard-boiled eggs?

Eggs in hand, I arrived at the WC on a brisk February morning. Breakfast was already laid out on the glowing pine dining table: cut fruit, granola-yogurt parfaits, orange juice. I added my eggs to the spread. I was handed pencil and paper and instructed to take each guest’s breakfast order. New to the scene, it seemed the crowd was reluctant to place breakfast orders with me — until Nelson swooped in bearing platters of Chick-n-minis. With their favorite item on the menu, soon everyone was ready to order.

After an hour or so, breakfast had been served, and the guests eased into conversation, with volunteers joining at various tables to chat. We discussed the erratic Raleigh weather, children, and chores for the day. One woman said she hates doing laundry — and we all agreed. We talked vaccinations and where one could go to get them. Two friends chatted about the best bus route to get to another venue for dinner.

Just as the post-meal lull set in, the disco music started. Koon, still aproned, had shifted from barista to DJ, asking for song requests. One table asked for Luther Vandross, another wanted Gloria Gaynor, and a request for Pharrell’s Happy came from the corner. Some guests popped to their feet to dance. Koon called out “hellos” to late arrival guests while she swayed to the tunes. Actually, we all swayed to the tunes. We couldn’t help ourselves — we were all in the same moment.

As the dance party wound down, we started to clear tables. A beloved latecomer arrived to much fanfare as we were packing away the buffet — she’d just finished her shift at a new job, and was stopping by for a quick bite and visit with her friends. Big hugs all around; she told us her workday was terrific, and she loved her new gig.

I asked Koon how folks could best support their work, and she said that while they welcome monetary donations, they always prefer a smiling face to join them for coffee talk. She reiterated something she’d said earlier in the morning: spending time on coffee Thursdays is as much for the volunteers as it is for the guests.

And then it was over; Koon and Nelson packed away the food and coffee. Everyone slowly exited, hugging and waving their way out of the building, happy to know they had their next coffee date on the calendar.   

This story originally appeared in our July 2021 issue.