Good Mornings at Sunrise (Café)

Written by Alissa Ji ‘20

6:45 am. My third alarm chimes, the clanging of bells ringing through the air. Groaning, I reach for my glasses, squinting as my eyes adjust to the bright morning light, and roll out of bed, quickly throwing on clothes and scuttling out the door.

Volunteers setting up trays

7:30 am. It’s Friday morning, and it’s pancake day. As I walk in the kitchen door, I am enveloped by the aroma of frying butter. The cafe doors have just opened, and guests flood the dining area. Soft murmuring at the tables grows into animated chatter, and among the snippets of conversation, several questions are repeated: Name? Table number? Would you like sausage with your pancakes? Meanwhile, Rihanna’s “Work” blares in the background in the kitchen, and my fatigue quickly dissipates as volunteers and tickets inundate the space.

Volunteer flipping pancakes

A non-profit organization and program under the umbrella of Liberty Community Services, Sunrise Café is the only organization in New Haven that provides free breakfast to members of the local community every weekday morning. Staffed primarily by volunteers, the organization changes the relationship between volunteer and patron. The nonprofit café functions similarly to a restaurant; guests order breakfast from a weekly menu and have it prepared and served to them by volunteers in the kitchen. The process of ordering and serving highlights how empowering the simple experience of ordering food can be and provides both parties with a positive and fueled start to the day. Tickets with various abbreviations scribbled on them – “GB” for granola bar, “SM” for smoothie, “P” for pancake – accumulate in a basket, only to be whisked out by a volunteer and placed onto a bright orange tray. Two hours pass quickly, trays floating back and forth, the dining area bursting with lively conversation, and the kitchen bustling with laughter and the occasional dance move.

Stacked bowls of cereal and cups of milk

9:30 am. As guests slowly begin to trickle out of the dining area, I strap on my backpack to leave for class, and one of the volunteers shouts out to me, “Have you had anything to eat yet?” When I shake my head, he offers me a stack of warm pancakes, and I grab one as I stroll out. Open to all members of the New Haven community, both to volunteer and to attend as guests, Sunrise Café provides an inclusive space for individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds to congregate and enjoy breakfast. The organization operates on a unique model where guests often also serve as volunteers, flipping pancakes and arranging breakfast trays, and volunteers are likewise invited to dine. A fluid relationship, rather than a clear bright-line, exists between volunteer and guest.

Oftentimes, there are many proposed “barriers” to volunteering: events are too early, students have too much schoolwork on campus, etc., and it becomes easy to isolate ourselves in an environment where we focus solely on Yale-related activities. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way students see the relationship between Yale and New Haven, and volunteering at Sunrise brings together people from all different walks of life and allows us to contribute to the community not just as Yale students, but also as New Haven residents. With music blaring, volunteers jamming, and guests dining, Sunrise Café offers a fun way to engage in service, to build community, and to reevaluate our relationship with New Haven.

Volunteers preparing to take trays out

Sunrise is open Monday through Friday, 7:30 am to 9:30 am, and is open to all members of the New Haven community. For more information and updates, you can visit their Facebook page.

Alissa Ji is a freshman in Pierson College. She is a participant in Dwight Hall’s Freshmen-In-Service program and is preparing to become a Dwight Hall Outreach Fellow for Pierson College. 

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