Higher Grounds ‘It’s about more than just coffee’

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer August 12, 2010 08:42 am
Submitted photos Kids and adults from the Higher Grounds coffee bar begin their alley clean-up efforts July 18.
Submitted photos Kids and adults from the Higher Grounds coffee bar begin their alley clean-up efforts July 18.
Mix business and social experiment, and there’s bound to be some interesting results. Ask Steve Fund, owner of the Higher Grounds coffee shop in the Olde Towne Mercantile at Fir Street and Adams Avenue.

Since opening the 24-hour shop in April, Fund has become a sort of shepherd or father confessor for kids and young adults. He’s seen both their good and bad sides, and he’s taken heat for some of the things they’ve done.

He’s also learned they’re at their best when they feel useful.

“These are great kids. They want to contribute to the community. You’ve just got to get to know them,” Fund said.

Higher Grounds never was your average coffee shop, and Fund never intended it to be. He welcomes all business, of course, but more than anything Higher Grounds is his way of reaching out to people who struggle with drug and alcohol problems.

A founder of Underground Oasis, an  addiction recovery program that meets regularly at the Olde Towne building, Fund aimed to give people in recovery a place to go for friendship, support and comfort — around the clock, seven days a week.

“As I originally envisioned it, it was supposed to be a place where people could go between meetings,” Fund said.

Higher Grounds is indeed that. But from the beginning, it attracted a clientele Fund hadn’t counted on.

Inside the building, there’s a game room with a pool table and foosball table. Under a stairwell is a lounge area complete with a video game-compatible television.

Young people naturally latched on to Higher Grounds as a place to hang out.

“We thought we’d be getting adults, but we got kids, gobs and gobs of kids,” Fund said. “I’m not saying that’s bad. They started coming in droves and we decided this was going to be a safe place for them to be.”

Things didn’t go smoothly at first. Young people hung around inside, and outside, too, at all hours of the day and night.

They were commonly seen on the sidewalk, playing hacky sack, goofing with skateboards, smoking, littering and sometimes behaving in rowdy fashion.

Fortunately, nothing too serious happened. Most incidents were verbal in nature, Fund said.

“In Hermiston you might expect drive-by shootings, but in La Grande you get drive-by hootings,” he said.

Still, La Grande police officers found themselves answering a high number of calls to the place. They chased curfew violators home, took probation violators into custody.

Police Chief Brian Harvey said he supported Fund’s business ideas at the outset, but then there came a cooling off period.

“We had a pretty heavy call load there,” he said. “If this was two months ago, I’d tell you I had my doubts about its benefit to the community.”

Harvey said some local parents expressed concerns about the place, saying they were uncomfortable dropping their children off at the Granada theater next door.

But officers answering calls to Higher Grounds made an interesting observation. The young customers behaved themselves when Fund was around. Trouble almost always happened after he’d gone home.

Fund talked things over with Harvey, with Juvenile Department Director Jim Brougham, with Community Corrections Director Jane DeClue. He wanted to go on with his venture, so he promised some changes.

Then he started laying down his own law.

“I just told the kids, you want a place to be, you’ve got to act right,” he said.

Though easy-going enough,  Fund is a big burly fellow with the look of an outlaw biker and a manner that is down-to-earth and direct. If he tells someone to behave, likely they’re going to listen. In this case, anyway, the kids did.

“They stepped up to the plate. It was almost instantaneous,” he said.

Fund let the Union County Sheriff’s office know he would welcome visits from the department’s drug-detecting canine. The very thought of the dog showing up without notice remains a good drug deterrent, he said.

“The kids know the dog can come through here anytime,” he said.

Not everybody hanging around the coffee shop liked the new rules, which included no rowdiness, no bullying, no smoking out front and no littering. After it became apparent Fund meant business, some kids stopped coming.

That wasn’t all bad, said Fund. Among kids, word got around that Higher Grounds was a safer place to go.

“We lost some, but we gained more,” he said.

Then came a night in July when someone — authorities still don’t know who — painted racial epithets and swastikas on buildings along Fir Street. It was done in glaring, hateful red.

The next morning, Terry McClure, who owns a jewelry store in the Olde Towne building and is a hearty supporter of Higher Grounds, organized a party to erase the blight.

McClure furnished the necessary gear, scrapers and brushes and paint, and a group of about a half dozen Higher Grounds customers went to work.

By noon, the graffiti was gone.

“The kids figured that since they hung out here, they’d get blamed for it anyway. So, they cleaned it up,” Fund said.

That, as things turned out, was only the first of community improvements courtesy of Higher Grounds. Fund saw a way to channel youthful energy down positive paths.

Not long after the graffiti episode, Ginny Mammen, a member of the La Grande Main Street Program design committee, dropped in on Fund for a chat.

As a design committee member, Mammen is concerned with the appearance of downtown, and she makes it a point to talk with merchants about it. During their visit, she and Fund (also involved with Main Street) came up with the idea of Higher Grounds customers doing a downtown alley clean-up.

Mammen helped coordinate the project, making contact with business owners and letting them know what was going to happen. Fund assembled a group to work on the project.

He found plenty of volunteers. For some, there was extra incentive to pitch in.

“We’ve got a multitude of labor and the kids who have community service to do can take it off their time,” Fund said.

On Saturday, July 18, youthful Higher Grounds customers, along with some grown-up supervisors, went to work on the long, east-west running alley that runs behind the businesses on the north side of Adams. They picked up about 1,000 pounds of trash and junk and hauled it off. City Garbage Service donated the dumping fee.

The group cleaned half the alley that day, and returned the next Saturday to finish.  Mammen said she is impressed with the job the youngsters did.

“I think they thought it would be easier than what it was, but they did a very nice job. It’s a good, positive thing,” she said.

With that accomplished, there are plans to clean up the long alley on the other side of Adams later in August. Fund said the youngsters look forward to it.

“When you watch them work, you see them looking back to admire what they’ve accomplished. They’re excited to continue,” he said.

Fund remains committed to keeping the coffee bar open, to helping people with addictions, and to giving young people a sense of worth. He said he could not do those things without a lot of help from his friends.

From a financial standpoint, Higher Grounds never has done well. Early on, Fund considered closing it because he couldn’t pay the help. Then the employees, most of them connected to Underground Oasis, said they would work for free.

One of those was Brandi DeLapp, who also serves as an Underground Oasis counselor.

“It about more than just coffee,” DeLapp said. “It’s nice to be able to let people know about the program we have here.”

About 25 people work for Higher Grounds on a volunteer basis. Some serve coffee, some act as security guards, some help in group activities like the alley clean-up, and some simply lend shoulders to lean on.

“This is a collaboration. There’s a lot of people who help out,” said McClure.

Around the clock, the doors stay open. According to Chief Harvey, the coffee bar isn’t the trouble spot it once was.

“There’s been a huge reduction in calls,” Harvey said. “Mr. Fund laid out some strict rules, and it’s made all the difference in the world.”