Inspired by Starbucks, a Young Man Overcomes Homelessness

For a while, Matthew Tejeda had a key chain in his pocket that symbolized what he wanted most in life. It had a picture of a house with a welcome mat.

“I’d be in tears when I held it. For me it was like holding on to hope,” he said.

Matthew described his life before and after becoming a Starbucks partner (employee) because he wants to express his appreciation for fellow store baristas who encouraged him as he worked to secure a life he’s always imagined. He also hopes to inspire others who may be going through challenging moments in their lives. In his own words, here is Matthew's story:

It was rough the way I grew up. I never met my father and my mother was stuck in a revolving door between substance abuse and prison. I was raised by my aunt from the age of 11 months until the age of 17. She tried her best, but we often struggled on public assistance living in the Bronx, NYC. Out of respect for my aunt, I will just say there were other people around her home who made it an unsafe place for me. But there was nowhere else to go. When I turned 17, my aunt finally said, “You have to make your own way now. I can’t take care of you anymore.” And that was that.

Things became even more unstable from there. I crashed at a relative's house, and quickly learned that I could not stay there forever. Next thing I knew I found myself walking around NYC wondering where I would sleep. A friend’s house? A train station? Central Park? Honestly it got scary. I was 19-years-old, in Manhattan with no place to go. I thought of all the stereotypes about homeless people I’d heard growing up. I had become one of them.

But here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom - when you lose everything, it helps you realize just how strong you are. I experienced intense hunger, felt the freezing cold, and lived with uncertainty. Slowly I began to realize I could survive. And if I could get through those things, then maybe I could survive anything. Maybe I was stronger than I realized. Maybe you are too.

Even while I was out there wandering around completely alone, I found that knowledge was deeply inspiring. I made a decision to stop focusing on my past, and instead I began asking myself, how will I move forward? I found a homeless shelter where I could stay for a while. My first week there I remember lying in bed and opening Howard Schultz’s book “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life without Losing its Soul.” I had always been into motivational books, but there was something about this book’s message that was different. Howard was optimistic in the face of challenges. He was certain and bold. During that first week in the shelter I would spend every day walking around Manhattan searching for a job, and then at night I would return to the shelter to read Howard’s book. While the other young men were sleeping, I used my cell phone light to read it cover to cover. I internalized Onward’s message of leadership and I would use it to encourage myself whenever I felt down. Soon, I began signing all of my emails and text messages with his famous signature “Onward.”

I became a Starbucks barista on my 20th birthday. Still, I worked two other jobs simultaneously so that I could save up enough money to get a home of my own. I worked nonstop for several months and then realized if I’m ever going to create value in my life I needed to pick one path and dedicate myself to it entirely. At that point it was clear for me that Starbucks was that path. Not only was I deeply inspired by its history but I was also inspired by how much Starbucks gives back to the communities it serves around the world. There was a kind of integrity about the organization and a sense of community that I wanted to be part of. I began to work full time at Starbucks and although I didn’t know it at the time, my store partners would eventually become a huge part of my life.

After six months with Starbucks, I was promoted to shift supervisor. After another six months I became an assistant store manager. I was able to use the CUP (Caring Unites Partners) Fund along with my savings to cover the move-in cost for my very first apartment. The first night in my new apartment I was overwhelmed with emotion. It sounds silly, but I kept walking around the space and doing things like opening and closing the cabinets, looking in the fridge, sitting on the couch and running my hand over the fabric of the pillows. I couldn't believe it was really mine, and that I was really safe. I couldn’t remember ever feeling that way before. I finally had a place to call home. One year and a few months after that, I was promoted to store manager. I had changed my life and in the process I fell in love with Starbucks - the company and its partners. I was finally a part of something. I belonged.

Throughout my journey I would still have bad days where I felt as if it was all too much for me. On those days, when the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives, I made it my goal to uplift the moods of as many customers as possible. I found that if I could cheer them up and connect with them, even if just for a brief moment, it would also lift my spirit. I believe that being in service to others does something good for the soul. Working at Starbucks has taught me it’s the little things – the smallest gestures of kindness – that define a person’s experience. How you treat others will ultimately define how you feel about yourself. As a Starbucks store manager, I pay attention to the smallest details that define a customer's experience with our company.

I’ve learned life is filled with obstacles and you can’t change that. But no matter what challenges you face, you always, always have a say in who you are and in the kind of person you will be. I couldn’t help where I was born or what happened to me, but with the right attitude, I could certainly do something about it. That’s a choice that’s available to anyone.

Tafsir Mbodje is a Starbucks district manager who oversees about a dozen stores including the location Matthew Tejeda manages.

“Matthew is able to inspire partners who might be going through tough times. He always tells them there is hope, and gives extra time to help them succeed,” said Mbodje. “He is very driven and I think part of that is because of his story. He doesn’t want to go back, so he keeps moving forward.”

This is Matthew’s Starbucks story. What’s yours? Share a story idea by emailing [email protected]

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2024 Starbucks summer highlights