This hip-hop coffee shop pays for free therapy, one cup at a time

A Chicago coffee shop that focuses on mental health wants to make sure its customers have a place to “talk about hard stuff.”

Christopher LeMark, the founder of “Coffee, Hip-Hop and Mental Health,” has dealt with trauma for much of his life after being “abandoned and abused for a span of 12 years.” LeMark said that he didn’t know either of his parents and struggled with “a lot of complications,” including “physical, mental and emotional abuse” for 30 years of his life.

In 2018, that trauma caught up to him, and he “started crying uncontrollably” in a Starbucks in Chicago’s Southside neighborhood.

“I just couldn’t stop … So I went to therapy,” LeMark, a hip-hop artist and performer, told TODAY’s Carson Daly. “After some challenging sessions, my therapist sat up in his seat and he said ‘It wasn’t your fault you were abused.’ And now, for the first time, I heard it. I had been feeling like it was my fault, because that’s what happens. It’s so much shame that comes with being abused.”

As LeMark worked through the “marathon” that is healing from trauma, he felt called to help others do the same. He went home and wrote down “coffee,” “mental health” and “hip-hop” — three phrases that symbolized healing to him.

“I wrote down ‘coffee’ because of the mental and emotional breakdown happened inside of a coffee shop,” LeMark explained. “Hip-hop saved my life from committing suicide. I always had a chance to write. It was my first form of therapy. And ‘mental health,’ because in my community we’re taught to survive and we weren’t talking about it, so I wanted to normalize this conversation.”

With that, LeMark opened “Coffee, Hip-Hop, and Mental Health,” a non-profit organization where every hip-hop inspired drink sold helps fund free therapy sessions for individuals in need. LeMark said that initially, he wanted to sell enough coffee and merchandise to send 250 people to therapy. One woman, public school teacher Faith Overall, was among those first helped by the program.

“If I had to pay out of pocket, chances are I was just going to have to skip out on therapy,” Overall said. “If we have to choose between what’s going to provide a roof over our head and what’s going to help us navigate life, we’re kind of conditioned to provide the roof over our heads instead. And so having access to free therapy gave me the opportunity to actually get to what I needed to get to.”

Overall said that being able to access that care made her a better educator.

“I think that you can talk to anyone, and they have a story about a teacher that harmed them,” Overall said. “And chances are, that’s because that teacher themself was unhealed. So if I heal myself, I have the opportunity to heal my students.”

LeMark said that the nonprofit has helped him recover from his own trauma.

“You know, I spent a whole lifetime saying ‘Why me, why me? Why did Mom abandon me?’ And then it all hit,” LeMark said. “This is why, because I was going to be used to build a platform so people can get some help. And when you think about here in Chicago, it’s such a divide when it comes to having the resources, which is why we took a risk to open up this amazing coffee shop so we can say ‘We’re going to step out and we’re going to pay for people to get some help, because healing is a marathon.’”

LeMark said that he also thinks the coffee shop has helped break the stigma around mental health and led to more candid conversations about therapy.

“When you think about going to therapy, it’s almost like an uncomfortable thing,” LeMark said. “I want to tell people that it’s probably one of the most beautiful things you can do for yourself, and it’s actually very strong to be vulnerable, to own your emotions. … I tell people all the time, ‘Healing is the new cool.’ That is the new cool. And we just have to keep saying that over and over again. And that’s how you re-change the narrative.”

LeMark told Carson that watching the hundreds of people who have been able to attend therapy sessions start their own healing process has been the most rewarding part of the process.

“People don’t come here just for a cup of coffee. They come here because of the therapeutic transaction,” LeMark said. “People want to be seen, and we tell our staff ‘Make sure you love on them,’ and that’s the issue. A lot of people are not seen. We give them the opportunity, for a single moment, to be heard and seen.”

This story was originally published on Today.com.

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