After operating for five years as New Haven’s only free weekday breakfast provider, Sunrise Cafe has earned 501(c)(3) status as an independent nonprofit.
Formerly a program under Liberty Community Services, a supportive housing and services provider, the cafe’s choice to branch off was announced toward the end of January this year in a joint press release. Sunrise’s decision to become fully independent partially stemmed from having gained the capacity to stand on its own through the financial and administrative support of donors. It will now be able to receive monetary and in-kind support directly, rather than relying on Liberty for accounting, donation handling and other essential services.
“It is indeed a milestone for Sunrise to stand on its own two feet,” Terry Holcombe, a member of Sunrise Cafe’s board and former vice president for development and alumni affairs at Yale, wrote in an email to the News. “It is not unlike a family, where a child matures and acquires the wherewithal to be independent.”
Holcombe emphasized the two organizations’ complementary missions — both formerly, under one umbrella, and even after the independence — in feeding and housing the poor and needy.
While independence may bring new growth for the nonprofit, Holcombe hopes that its mission and the realization of it will remain consistent as it has in the past. Over the years that it has been serving citizens of the elm city, Sunrise has started offering the daily breakfast service to many more guests.
“The transition year and future portend no change in the mission, but only hopefully in the scope of Sunrise,” Holcombe said. “We have grown from 10 people at the first breakfast to at times over 200 today.”
In the joint press release, Sunrise’s co-founder Anne Calabresi and the Executive Director of Liberty Jim Pettinelli announced that “the program is on track to serve more than 37,000 meals this year.”
Despite Sunrise leaving its status as a constituent program of Liberty, the collaborative relationship between the organizations will continue. The cafe will serve as an access point for vital resources and services for housing and employment.
In an email to the News, Pettinelli explained that Liberty’s long-term success in ending homelessness will rely on a unified community willing to work differently — just like Sunrise Cafe has.
“Sunrise’s growth is a testament to how a powerful grassroots vision-driven enterprise of community members joining together can create something incredible,” Pettinelli wrote. “This next chapter is exciting for everyone who has been connected to this project over the years.”
The community that Pettinelli discusses is also intertwined with Yale in many ways. In addition to Yale staff and their spouses serving as board leaders on both organizations, alumni volunteers and students regularly volunteer. Holcombe said that Sunrise has provided a forum for alumni and current students to interact as they serve the breakfasts.
“Our guests benefit enormously, but so also I would argue those who volunteer, and whose lives are better and informed by exposure to a part of New Haven largely unseen, particularly by Yale students,” said Holcombe.
Rebecca Soulen ’20, who has volunteered at Sunrise since her first year, attested to its impact on her life and the greater community.
“The fact that Sunrise is independent speaks to the dedication of its staff and volunteers who have really put a lot of love and effort into making the Cafe possible,” Soulen told the News. “It’s their energy and dedication that keeps the Cafe alive.”
Sunrise becoming its own nonprofit was not something that could be easily envisioned four years ago. Back then, the Cafe’s focus was on staying open year to year. While “steady and reliable volunteer support” has been important, Soulen believes that the real credit is due to operations manager Thelma Ragsdale and Ellen Gabrielle, the program’s co-founder who passed away last summer.
While Soulen does not believe that the new nonprofit status will change the way students volunteer, she hopes that interested Yalies will consider getting involved.
“For me, Sunrise is a community,” said Soulen “It has its own rhythms and atmosphere. A community is a precious thing, and I think that’s one of the most unique aspects of Sunrise.”
Volunteers at Sunrise Cafe provided over 5,600 hours of service over the last twelve months.
Natalie Kainz | [email protected]