Special café opens its arms


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Every Wednesday morning, Agape Café opens for just an hour and half in Old Brick.

The donor-funded initiative, 26 E. Market St., is in its 22nd year, and it provides restaurant-style service to those who are homeless or in-need from 7-8:30 a.m.

Guests can look at and order from menus placed on tables that are set with tablecloths, silverware, and centerpieces.

“The idea is that people can choose from a menu, and just having that choice is part of having dignity,” said Laura Semken, the volunteer coordinator, who referred to it as one of Iowa Ciy’s “best-kept secrets.”

Food options include eggs in any style, sausage or bacon, home fries, toast, and fresh fruit, as well as the “specials of the week,” which rotate among French toast, pancakes, johnnycakes, breakfast burritos, casserole, and biscuits and gravy.

Orange juice, milk, and coffee are provided as well.

Semken first got involved with Agape Café 20 years ago, when she ran a coffee cart in the morning outside Old Brick. There, she met a previous pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church who invited Semken inside to see what Agape was all about.

“She offered me the job right there, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said a giggling Semken. “So I came up and volunteered and kind of checked out what it all was and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.’ It was fascinating.”

Not much about Agape Café has changed in its two decades of service; however, food costs have gone up in the past years, making donations vital as ever.

“Food costs have gone up a great deal. Every year, especially this year, I’ve noticed that when people donate money, it’s not stretching as far,” said the Rev. Raisin Horn, the chaplain of Trinity Episcopal and one of the Agape program leaders. “We do get a lot of the food donated, but we never know what will show up; then Laura has to go buy food, and the dollar’s not going as far.”

Agape receives about half of its food from Table to Table, an organization that receives food about to go to waste from businesses such as Aldi, HyVee, and Casey’s. Table to Table then distributes the food to other service groups.

Bread, potatoes, and rolls are among the foods Agape typically receives from Table to Table, but occasionally eggs, milk, juice, meat, and syrup are in the mix.

On average, the café will serve anywhere between 65 to 100 people on any given morning.

Since those in need often run out of money toward the end of the month, the last couple of Wednesdays are usually the busiest.

In order to ensure great service  for the guests, one of Semken’s many jobs is to find volunteers who take the goal of the café as seriously as others involved do, she said.

Semken finds most of her volunteers online through a website called VolunteerMatch, including University of Iowa senior Megan Philipp.

“I started coming here as an extra-credit project,” she said. “I found this place online, contacted Laura, and just loved it. I’ve been here ever since.”

“Ever since” for Philipp has been two years, but many volunteers have been involved for much longer — some for upwards of 10 years.

“It’s a really special place,” Philipp said. “I love it. It’s probably one of my favorite things about Iowa City.”

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