With his store closed, a Texas Starbucks partner and former Army medic volunteers at NY hospital

As Starbucks partners like Miguel Barajas support front-line responders – volunteering shoulder-to-shoulder in response to the global pandemic – Starbucks as a company is too, providing free coffee and making donations to strengthen their mental health.

Early in the spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew more and more serious, Miguel Barajas was stuck at home. The Starbucks in Austin, Texas, where he worked as a shift supervisor, was closed and he didn’t know when it would re-open. Then an email arrived.  

The Global Surgical and Medical Support Group wanted veteran volunteers to work at a makeshift field hospital in New York City, one of the first COVID-19 epicenters in the U.S. A former Army medic, Miguel applied. A week later, he was on a plane.  

“It was pretty early on, and no one really knew what was happening,” Miguel says. “I just saw people suffering, and I wanted to help.”  

Miguel, 37, spent most of April working with a team organized by New York Presbyterian Hospital, inside an athletic complex at Columbia University, during the first peak of the pandemic in New York City. The hospital had about 200 beds. Every day, he put on two masks, goggles, a blue hat and scrubs, working to comfort and stabilize COVID patients, giving medication and shots. 

A native Spanish speaker, Miguel also became a translator, helping many of the Spanish-speaking patients from nearby neighborhoods like Harlem and the Bronx navigate the medical system.  

“We definitely went through tragedy, a lot of terrible things that happened,” Miguel says. “But there were a lot of success stories. We sent dozens upon dozens of people back to their families.”   

Those were the early, eerie days of the pandemic. Miguel remembers walking through Times Square one night. He saw no cars and maybe four other people.  

Miguel enlisted in the Army later than most, when he was 29 years old. He’d worked in the banking industry in California for eight years, but grew disillusioned making money while putting others in debt. He’d been carrying around a picture of his brother, Guillermo, who died while serving in the Marine Corps. On the back, his brother had written, “You better join.”  

In 2012, Miguel quit banking, enlisted and ended up at Fort Hood, Texas. In 2014, he deployed to Kuwait as part of a medical brigade helping set up mobile hospitals and supporting combat operations in the Middle East.  

The mission to New York, which lasted three weeks, “was definitely an experience that made me grow,” Miguel says. “I saw it firsthand, that lesson of living in the present. We get tied up with so many different things in life, we forget that the most important thing and the greatest thing is what we’re living for in this very moment.”  

Miguel is back at his store now, studying to finish his sustainability degree through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP) benefit, which offers qualifying partners 100 percent tuition coverage for a first-time bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s online program. And he’s also working a remote internship with a team at the Starbucks Support Center, helping grow the company’s greener stores certification program.

As partners like Miguel support front-line responders. Starbucks as a company is too. In continued gratitude for everything they do for our communities, Starbucks will offer a free tall brewed coffee (iced or hot) to front-line responders at participating U.S. stores throughout the month of December. Starbucks has already provided more than four million cups of free coffee to front-line responders this year.

Also, to support the mental health of front-line responders, Starbucks this year has donated $100,000 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and $250,000 to the David Lynch Foundation to support mental-health research.  

And, The Starbucks Foundation has donated $250,000 to Operation Gratitude for COVID-19 support, which has resulted in 300,000 care packages delivered to front-line responders around the world. Starbucks is partnering again with Operation Gratitude to send 10,000 red holiday cups and whole-bean coffee as part of surprise holiday care packages to front-line responders throughout the U.S.