Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pay It Forward

Suspended’ payments become random acts of kindness to help people in need'

By Catherine Godbey, Decatur Daily Staff Writer, Decatur, Alabama

Brennen Smith/Decatur Daily

Sue Grumbir, left, Denise Tortora and Roger Lankford, of Suspended Coffee Decatur, helped start the “pay it forward” program. The effort involves customers going to a local business and “suspending” or paying for a service or product that will benefit someone else who may not be able to afford it.

Tears filled Denise Tortora’s eyes.

“You don’t have to pay for Buddy’s grooming this month,” Tortora repeated.

The customer, who scrimped, saved and, at times, missed meals to pay for her dog’s grooming services, stood in shock. As the shock gave way to realization, the woman began to cry.

“This woman saves every penny she has to get her dog groomed every other month because she loves him,” said Tortora, owner of Denise’s Doggie Den. “My customers donated money and were able to help her one month and look, we almost have enough to help someone else.”

Tortora pointed to a white board hanging prominently in the Moulton shop. Beneath the message “Random Acts of Kindness Performed Here Daily,” the words “Suspended Grooming Dollars Available: $40” appeared.

Two months ago, Denise’s Doggie Den joined the Suspended Coffee Decatur movement.

“The idea is simple,” leader Sue Grumbir said. “A person can go to a participating business and buy two coffees or two meals — one for themselves and another they suspend for someone in need to have later.”

The program eliminates the stigma of shame and negativity attached to asking for help.

“Rather than them coming in saying, ‘I can’t afford a coffee today,’ all they have to say is, ‘Do you have any suspended coffees available today?’ ” Grumbir said.

Suspended Coffee dates to the early 20th century, when a struggling economy preventing many Italians from buying coffee spurred those who could afford it to adopt a pay-it-forward approach. They called it “caffè sospeso.” Customers would pay in advance for people who could not afford a cup of coffee.

More than a century later and thousands of miles away, the Suspended Coffee program arrived in Decatur when Grumbir, a volunteer at the Committee on Church Cooperation felt inspired to do more.

“You develop relationships with the guests who come to the soup kitchen. You care about them. I started wondering when they would eat again. Would they go the whole weekend without anything? That’s when I approached Denise and Roger,” Grumbir said.

Grumbir, Tortora and Roger Lankford, who attend church and volunteer at the CCC together, took the idea and expanded it. Instead of only coffee, why not include meals, haircuts, animal grooming and accessories, they thought.

In July, the trio launched Suspended Coffee Decatur and reached out to friends, church members and strangers. They spent hours knocking on doors, pitching the idea to business owners. Some displayed skepticism, others excitement.

“Well, it was just stupid not to do it,” said Mattie West, owner of Beautiful Edge Salon — a Paul Mitchell Salon. “This program supports local businesses and, more importantly, allows us to give back to the community.”

At the salon on Moulton Street, guests can suspend an entire haircut, which runs $30, or a portion of a service. West experienced just how powerful something as simple as a haircut can be when she provided free services for victims of the April 2011 tornadoes.

“They came to us down and out and left uplifted. When you can afford to get your hair cut regularly, you take it for granted,” West said. “Even if we are short $5 and a woman asks for a suspended service, we will give it to her because we are committed to this idea. When you think about it, $5 is not that big in the grand scheme of things.”

That desire to empower people resulted in Holly Haggermaker’s participation in the program. The owner of Beautiful Boutique, an online jewelry business, glanced at a chalkboard hanging on the wall.

“We have had six pieces suspended so far. I try to match every piece that is donated, so that makes 12 pieces,” she said, excitedly.

A volunteer at the Neighborhood Christian Center, Haggermaker knows the rarity of finding jewelry in a clothes closet.

“When people give, they give clothes. They don’t think about jewelry,” Haggermaker said. “But there are women who have lost everything in a fire and women who are homeless and going for a job interview. When they put on a new piece of jewelry, it boosts their self-confidence.”

While Suspended Coffee organizers want to reach the homeless, the need extends across the community. Think about the mother who spends all her money on her four children or a father working two jobs to pay the bills or someone who forgot their wallet. At that point in time, Grumbir said, they are in need.

“It’s not our place to judge who is needy or who is not needy. You can’t determine whether someone is in need based on what they look like. You never know what they are experiencing,” Lankford said.

“So many people are living paycheck to paycheck. One missed paycheck and they won’t be able to pay for utilities, or the rent or even food. It is a challenge many face,” Grumbir said.

Robert Martin knows about that struggle first hand. For eight months, Martin lived in his car while he started FavGeek. The computer and phone repair company now celebrating its second decade in business began out of the trunk of Martin’s car.

“This is my chance to give back and do something to benefit the community,” Martin said. “We as a society look down on the homeless and needy and say, ‘You should get a job.’ Most want a job but don’t know how to get one.”

That’s where FavGeek can help, Martin said. For every $100 donated, FavGeek will hold a one-hour computer class for 10 to 15 people and teach them how to apply for jobs.

“You can’t even walk into a fast-food restaurant and ask for an application. Everything is done online,” Martin said. “Most don’t have access to a computer, and even if they do have access, they don’t know how to navigate it.”

By providing instruction, Martin hopes to impact people’s lives, not just for a day, but forever.

“Food pantries are great, but they provide a temporary fix. I want to help people get back on their feet and propel them to the next step,” Martin said.

Grumbir stressed businesses will provide services and meals only if they are suspended.

Other participating businesses include B.B. Perrin’s Sports Grille and Java Jaay Cafe in Decatur, Classic Cuts Barbershop in Priceville, Dairy Queen in Priceville and Hartselle, John’s Bar-B-Que in Moulton and We Believe Boutique.

“We know the need is great, but so is our spirit. Suspended Coffee is about reaching down and lifting others up, one random act of kindness at a time,” Grumbir said.

“We’re going to make a change in north Alabama. Something great is about to happen,” Tortora said.

To find out more information, visit

Catherine Godbey can be reached at 256-340-2441 or