By Jackie Crea
We see new coffee shops and restaurants pop up all over Denver, but there is one in the Cole neighborhood with plans to only hire employees that have been previously incarcerated. For now, the staff at Open Door Tea Shop is small, but their coffee is strong and so is their message.
“If you’re doing what you love, then it’s not really working. That’s not how it goes…” said William Gomez, who currently works at the coffee shop. But what he loves most is art: Some of it now hanging on the walls of the coffee shop which has been open for a month.
Creating art has been Gomez’s light during dark times, like when he did seven years behind bars from an assault charge, he told Denver7. “I call prison hell on Earth…’cause it was pretty bad,” Gomez said. Hanging alongside his pieces is plenty of work from artists that are still living in the shadows.
Open Door Tea Shop owner Kristen Cardenas said her goal is to only hire formerly incarcerated people and Gomez is her first and only, for now. “This artist is Chi and he is serving a very long sentence inside of Sterling prison as well,” said Cardenas as she pointed to one of the pieces on the wall.
She selects artwork from current inmates, sells them and sends all of the money to their families. The idea stems from her nonprofit Denver Arts and Skills Center, which provides a safe environment for ex-offenders to work with trained art therapists. That is how Gomez and Cardenas connected.
“There’s a lot of guys that won’t get out of prison, so that’s the only way they can give back to their kids that they probably never see,” said Gomez.
Cardenas understands their hardships first-hand. “Both of my brothers became drug addicts, in and out of the prison system…drug court, you name it,” said Cardenas.
Getting that first job can make all the difference. “Prison pretty much challenges you to either straighten your life up or don’t,” said Gomez. So every cup of coffee, every brush stroke, keeps him in the light.
“You can learn from your mistakes and I guess that, in turn, changes you,” said Gomez.