Helping the helpers: Starbucks partners inspire local impact in their communities


One long day last June, Renee Fenker started work at 6:30 a.m. as a Starbucks store manager in Santa Cruz, Calif. Later that afternoon, on her way home, her emergency pager went off: car crash nearby. She raced straight to the Felton Fire Station, where she assumed her other role as a volunteer firefighter and fire engine driver.

Within minutes, she was driving a crew of first responders to the scene, eventually taking care of a passenger who’d been injured in the head-on collision, looking after bystanders and cleaning up spilled fuel on the road.

“I just really love to help people,” says Fenker, who started at Starbucks as a 17-year-old barista.  

“That’s why I ended up at Starbucks, we really care about who’s on the other side (of the counter). Being a firefighter, being an EMT, it’s being able to get out there and help out someone when they’re having their worst day. We have that ability to create that kindness within our homes, our communities.”

For the last six years, she’s juggled working at Starbucks and volunteering as a firefighter, sometimes doing back-to-back shifts. Her husband, Nathan, is also a Felton volunteer firefighter. Experiences from both jobs have fit together well. She’s used the communication and conflict management skills she’s learned at Starbucks to help de-escalate tense situations while responding to 911 calls. During COVID-19, her department has been supporting local shelters and a mental-health facility, helping people in the area prepare their properties for wildfire season and continuing to train new recruits. 

Inspired by Fenker’s efforts and passion, The Starbucks Foundation is supporting the Felton Fire Protection District with a $2,500 grant, which will go towards helping the all-volunteer department continue supporting their community.

Hers is just one story, part of $1 million in Neighborhood Grants ranging from $2,500 to $7,500, which will be distributed to 400 organizations across the United States and Canada. The Starbucks Foundation grants are designed to help build sustained local impact and inspire increased partner volunteerism with nonprofits that work in our communities. The organizations are the third round of recipients to be awarded Neighborhood Grants, which were first announced in the fall of 2019. This round has a focus on COVID-19 community response.

“As we were looking to further support communities impacted by COVID-19, The Starbucks Foundation turned to partners to share the challenges facing their communities,” says Aldrinana Leung, manager, The Starbucks Foundation. “We heard from nearly 3,000 partners who provided insight into the needs in their communities and local organizations working to support their neighbors. These Neighborhood Grants represent thousands of connections and the positive impact our partners make in their communities every day.”

Other grant recipients include:

The Center for Women and Families in Shepherdsville, Ky.

Justice Jones, a Starbucks store manager, nominated this organization for helping her leave an abusive relationship. The organization supported her as she was getting a restraining order in court, offered therapy afterwards and helped her build a support system of women who had been through similar experiences.

“They gave me a lot of ease throughout the worst time of my life,” Jones says. “I am incredibly grateful for them.”

The growing economic and emotional toll of the pandemic is likely exacerbating abusive relationships, Justice says, with families increasingly stressed due to unemployment and victims of abuse trapped in close quarters due to quarantine measures.

“The nation as a whole is currently in a much worse place to provide support for victims in these kinds of circumstances,” she says. “So it is more important now than ever to know the resources available and be able and willing to reach out to one another.”

Batshaw Youth and Family Centres Foundation in Montreal

Cassidy Vanderveen, Starbucks store manager, nominated Batshaw, thinking back to her own experience as a homeless teenager, when she slept in parks or on friends’ couches, and showed up at school early to shower and get ready.

“If I had an organization like Batshaw to go to, I strongly believe a lot of things in my life wouldn’t have been so traumatizing,” Vanderveen says. “Everything I did in life had to be the hard way, and it’s exhausting. When you’re a homeless child (on your own), it’s a lot different than being a homeless adult, because these are the years when a parent is supposed to guide you. You’re supposed to be learning life skills, not thrown in to sink or swim.”

Vanderveen, who encounters people who are homeless regularly on the job at Starbucks, is concerned about how COVID-19 is affecting “our most vulnerable humans.”

“When we take care of our most vulnerable, we take care of our society as a whole,” she says. “A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be coming together as a team to get through this.”

CHiPS in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ilisa McLachlan manages the Starbucks store located across the street from the nonprofit soup kitchen and women’s shelter. She’s seen firsthand the positive impact it has had on her community and “the level of love and care that they show for everyone that is in need.”

McLachlan remembers the first day her Starbucks opened about two years ago when the executive director and director of food services from CHiPS walked into the store, introduced themselves and immediately offered their support. During the COVID-19 crisis, CHiPS has created a community pop-up food distribution center.

“They are in it for the right reasons,” McLachlan says. “They center everything around making people feel welcome, and talk to all people with respect, even the roughest of the rough. I’ve witnessed how this makes a big difference. That’s why I chose them.”