CORK, IRELAND—When Ireland’s economy went into tailspin from the Celtic Tiger boom years to unemployment topping 15.1 percent by February 2012, a 29-year-old plumber named John Sweeney was one of the many who lost their jobs.
“When I became a plumber, I was told that’s the way to go,” John says. “You’ll have a job for life.”
During the four long years that followed, John picked up occasional plumbing projects and part-time work at a pub. The school fees for his four children were crippling even in the best of times, and if his parents hadn’t occasionally stopped over, bringing the family dinners, he admits, “We would be in major, major trouble.”
John was enduring what many others were during a global recession: It’s easy to fall into despair from the stress, and the job search can be incredibly difficult and lonely. In March 2013, several months after even the part-time work had dried up, John discovered a story that gave him a flash of hope—the tale of caffè sospeso, or Suspended Coffees.
As the tale goes, Suspended Coffees originated in Naples, Italy a century ago, with customers paying for two espressos, taking one, and instructing baristas to log the paid-for-but-untaken drink. Another patron could come in later and ask if any drinks were available and be served a warm beverage with dignity.
John leapt on the idea, and posted a Suspended Coffees Facebook page on March 27, 2013. He was hoping only that a few of his local cafes might adopt the practice within a few months. He was astonished when the page already had 20,000 likes in 48 hours. Less than a year later, it has become a movement–with over 250,000 Facebook likes and over 800 coffee shops participating globally.
John is clear about one thing: “A cup of coffee—it’s not going to change the world. It’s not going to change someone’s life. It’s a good will-gesture. Start with a cup of coffee, and the sky’s the limit.”
The Facebook page has become a repository of people documenting small gestures that Suspended Coffees have spurred in their own lives, as a small act of kindness builds into a habit of sharing. People give coffee, and then visit retirement homes and share small gifts. They give their time. They start stowing care packages for the homeless in their cars or purses.
“The amount of positivity I receive daily is just unbelievable,” John says. “It’s overwhelming, because that many people in the world want to do good. It does restore your faith, you know.”
He’s watching the ripples of Suspended Coffees as the idea spreads across the globe. A few volunteers have cropped up—six spread across the U.S., Canada, Belgium, and the UK—to help sort through hundreds of backlogged messages and keep up the website. The sweep of Suspended Coffees has been such that John still needs more volunteers.
Coffee shops have adopted the program in different ways. Starbucks in the UK donates and matches proceeds through its charity program. Idaho Cafe in Cork was overrun with a glut of suspended coffees and ended up donating 1,600 euros to the local homeless shelter.
After Superstorm Sandy, Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, New Jersey got power back quickly and spent two days handing out free drinks to anyone who came in. That generosity prompted employee Sarah Conley, who’d read about Suspended Coffees on Facebook, to ask her boss Ed Kok to adopt the program. Now the coffee shop has so many coffees in suspension that they will hand out vouchers for them at a local food pantry to make sure people know they are welcome to use them.
“The community’s helped us so much throughout the years,” says Ed. “This is just our small contribution, our small way of giving back.”
This is the spirit John sees in the movement. “It’s about local coffee shops, where you know your barista,” he says. “It’s about communities coming together and looking after people directly in their communities. It’s about starting small. I think pretty much everyone will be comfortable with the price of a cup of coffee, if they feel it would brighten someone’s day.”
In its purest form, Suspended Coffees are about an act of anonymous kindness to a neighbor, a subtle way of bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. For those who receive the coffee, it’s more in the spirit of accepting a shared gift and less a request for a handout.
And in John’s hometown, many of his neighbors can use a pick-me up. According to Cork Simon, a local homeless services organization, the city’s homelessness rate tripled between 2011-2012. What’s worse, says John, “Now there’s so many people who have homes, but they have absolutely nothing. There’s no money to put food on their tables, no money to put nappies [diapers] on their children. It’s so hard, and it’s so tough, and it’s everywhere.” Yet he mentions a Ross Kemp documentary he recently watched that touched on poverty in India: “To see another human being in such poverty, when there is so much wealth in the world—it’s just wrong.”
John is still looking for work and will soon start a course to learn Excel. “I wouldn’t say we’re in a bad position, because look, I have my family,” he says. “We have our health, and so long as we have that, I’m going to be happy anyway.”
And he knows what it’s like to be graced by an act of surprising kindness. One hot day, John had just picked up his three older kids from school and stopped into a shop to buy some milk. The kids pleaded for ice cream bars, which each cost a quarter. “Look, lads, I can’t,” John said quietly, so as not to embarrass them, and himself, as he just couldn’t afford them. But when he went to pay, the grocer, who knows John well and had read about Suspended Coffees, handed out the coveted treats.
“We call it suspended ice cream,” the grocer said with a smile.
“It’s such a little gesture, what it did for me that day. I can’t really explain it,” John says, his voice trailing off. “It really, really meant a lot.”
WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
John has tried to contact Ellen DeGeneres via Facebook to help spread Suspended Coffees. Can you help get Ellen’s attention @TheEllenShow?