Coffee and caring: Manager of the downtown Athens Starbucks holds donation drives for those in need

Lucretia Cooper takes a selfie while loading donated toys into her van on Oct. 28, 2021. These toys will be delivered to various foster care homes in the Athens area. Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

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Lucretia Cooper takes a selfie while loading donated toys into her van on Oct. 28, 2021. These toys will be delivered to various foster care homes in the Athens area. Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Lucretia Cooper wants to collect at least 500 new toys by Dec. 15 for foster care children, and she’s doing it from the Starbucks she manages in downtown Athens.

The holiday toy drive, which began Oct. 22, is the latest donation drive at the coffeehouse chain’s location across the street from the University of Georgia campus. Her original goal of 100 toys was met within 48 hours, and as of mid-November, she has collected more than 200 toys.

Cooper said she started her efforts after she moved to Athens three years ago and noticed that some of her Starbucks customers did not seem to have anywhere to sleep or essential items to stay warm.

“It was winter time and there were more than 50 men and women sleeping on the streets of downtown, including on the patio of Starbucks after we closed the store,” said Cooper.

She started collecting coats, mittens and blankets because people were coming in saying how cold they were. She collected 150 pieces of clothing — worth about $500 — in her first drive in 2018, and since it was a big success, she said, she did another drive.

“I have a background in homelessness outreach, doing community service, going on mission trips, so it’s always been something near and dear to my heart,” said Cooper.

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Store manager Lucretia Cooper stands next to last month’s food drive bin in Starbucks on Oct. 15, 2021. She corresponds the items of the drive with the most prominent needs of homeless people. Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Store manager Lucretia Cooper stands next to last month’s food drive bin in Starbucks on Oct. 15, 2021. She corresponds the items of the drive with the most prominent needs of homeless people. Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

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Store manager Lucretia Cooper stands next to last month’s food drive bin in Starbucks on Oct. 15, 2021. She corresponds the items of the drive with the most prominent needs of homeless people. Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Credit: Courtesy of Destiny Johnson

Athens-Clarke County officials this fall approved an encampment site for those experiencing homelessness; the camp site will be a collaboration between the government and service providers.

Since she began, the items she has collected include non-perishable food, hats, scarves and jackets for people, as well as pet supplies for the Athens Area Humane Society. She estimates that she has collected 550 items. Food and clothing items collected are either donated to Bigger Vision of Athens, which operates a homeless shelter, or directly to people who need these essentials.

Cooper uses the location’s Instagram account (@starbucksdtathens) to communicate fundraisers, but from there, it’s word of mouth.

“Students, faculty or government workers tell someone to tell someone, and they’ll come in and help, dropping items off,” she said.

John Gebert, a staffer at Bigger Vision, said Cooper’s food donations have provided breakfasts for people staying at the shelter.

When someone is particularly in need and does not have the means to get food from a shelter, Cooper said she has bought them a drink or a Starbucks bakery item.

“If they are dropped off downtown, they know they can come over to our Starbucks and get a glass of water or something to eat,” she said. “I want our store to continue to be a place for them.”

Cooper says that her Starbucks being a café in a downtown area instead of a drive-through store allows people to stay for longer periods of time during the day as long as they follow the store rules related to respectful behavior, masks and social distancing.

“Other stores don’t see that because it’s quicker. Everyone wants to just grab a coffee and go,” she said.

Cooper says the company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is focused on demonstrating appreciation for its community. In May 2020, her store donated 960 ounces of coffee to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center and $200 in gift cards.

“We talk about human connection and how we connect with our customers and our partners,” she said. “And I wanted to take that a little bit further because we are a store right across from the university.”

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Donation bin inside Starbucks filled with toys such as trucks, stuffed animals and basketballs. Taken on Oct. 27, 2021. Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Donation bin inside Starbucks filled with toys such as trucks, stuffed animals and basketballs. Taken on Oct. 27, 2021. Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

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Donation bin inside Starbucks filled with toys such as trucks, stuffed animals and basketballs. Taken on Oct. 27, 2021. Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Credit: Courtesy of Lucretia Cooper

Also this year, Feeding America’s Foodshare initiative was officially launched in every U.S. Starbucks store. The company has been a partner of Feeding America since 2016.

She also sees the outreach as another form of education in this college town.

“A lot of the people I hire are college students and some have never been around this type of culture, around this homeless issue that we have downtown here in Athens,” she said. “It’s all new to them, but it’s definitely teaching them what reality looks like.”

She plans to drop off the toys for kids ages 2 to 14 that she collects through mid-December at the Division of Family & Children Services office in Athens. She posts on boxes in her store a flyer with suggested items, such as board games, books, puzzles, sports balls, Lego, craft kits, cars, trucks, bikes, skates, nail polish sets, hair accessories, kids’ jewelry sets and stuffed animals.

“I’m so excited to be able to do this work for those in need,” Cooper said in an email with an update about the toy drive. “It’s my heart’s joy.”

This story is written by University of Georgia journalism majors who are covering poverty-related stories this semester.


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