Francois Reihani was born into a loving and supportive family that provided for him in every way.
As a child, he thought that was normal. But as he grew older, he began to realize that other kids weren’t so lucky – and that he could do something about it.
In 2019, Reihani opened La La Land Kind Cafe, a small, all organic coffee shop in Dallas, Texas, that provides support and jobs to youth who have outgrown the foster care system.
The shop, which is a white renovated home with joyful bursts of yellow inside and out, is meant to be a safe haven for these young adults, Reihani, a 24-year-old restaurateur, told CNN.
“Imagine thinking your whole life that you’re worthless, that your parents didn’t want you,” Reihani said. “Then you have to be placed into a system where no one really cares – you’re living in 10 different foster homes, you’ve never received any real love.”
Once children in the foster care system turn 18, they become responsible for themselves, Reihani said. But because they didn’t receive adequate love and support, many end up homeless or unable to afford higher education.
Through La La Land Kind Cafe, he hopes to change that for at least some young adults.
“We truly are in the business of kindness,” he said. “We provide not just a stable job for our youth, but a support system with love and care. The basics that any human being needs in our lives.”
Resolving to make a difference
At the age of 12, Reihani moved from Mexico to the United States with his family. And, with their support, he prospered.
Years later, while studying at Southern Methodist University, Reihani began volunteering with a local non-profit organization that helps children in the foster care system. But after hearing one too many stories of neglect and abuse, he resolved to do more.
“I didn’t want to leave a Band-Aid on it,” he said. “I wanted to solve the entire problem. This meant providing housing help, job placement, mentorship, help with schooling and therapy.”
Two years ago, Reihani and his sister, Francesca, launched the We Are One Project. It provided foster youth who had outgrown the system with loads of helpful resources, like housing placement and free therapy.
The goal, Reihani said, was to get young adults stable and ready enough to find employment after their time in foster care. Still, after a year, he and his sister came to the “harsh realization” that their efforts weren’t enough.
The main problem? No one was willing to hire foster youth because they lacked work experience. To remedy the situation, Reihani sold his two restaurants and opened La La Land Kind Cafe.
“If no one was caring enough to hire our youth, I would do it myself,” he said.
‘Completely’ changing lives
Since opening last year, La La Land Kind Cafe has provided support and jobs to nine foster youth.
Some of them used the experience as a jumping off point to more fulfilling jobs elsewhere. Others, have chosen to stay with the cafe long term.
Ciara Moton, 20, is nearing the anniversary of her first year working at the cafe. She said it has “completely” changed her life.
Moton said she’s been in the foster care system since childhood, bouncing from home to home. She’s experienced neglect, sexual abuse, unemployment and homelessness.
“By the time I applied to the cafe, I was five months pregnant and had a premature stillborn,” Moton said. “After that I lost my car and lost my job. But since La La Land (Kind Cafe), my life has just been so stable and I’ve been so much happier.”
In fact, Reihani says Moton is known for being a “bubbly, super positive, ray of sunshine” – even when she’s going through tough times.
The best part of the job, Moton said, is the sense of family it provides. Reihani is more like a big brother than a boss, and her coworkers are all friends, she said.
“We are all so tight knit and we’re all very open,” she said. “When one of us is going through a hard time, the rest of us are there to support them.”
The experience has even inspired Moton to pay it forward. After a few more years at the cafe, she wants to find a job helping victims of domestic violence.
“Working at the cafe has helped me come to this point in my life where I learned to forgive. Part of it was me getting there on my own, but it was also because I had a stable place that was very loving and I was able to feed that into my own life,” Moton said.
It’s the type of growth and change Reihani hopes to instill in all the youth he hires. While he knows he can’t change the lives of everyone in the foster care system, he’s dedicated to making a difference, one person at a time.
The impact of the coronavirus
As of Monday afternoon, coronavirus cases have topped more than 775,000 worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. Businesses across the globe are closing without knowing when – or if – their doors will ever open again.
As business owners close their doors, their employees are left without work. The Department of Labor reported that initial jobless claims soared to a seasonally adjusted 3.28 million in the week ended March 21.
Reihani said La La Land Kind Cafe is among those businesses that have taken a hit financially amid the pandemic. .
“Its been very hard,” Reihani told CNN. “In a normal business situation, it would make a lot more sense to shut the doors since we’re losing money to stay open. Our main priority is to make sure our team has stability in their lives, so we have stayed open to provide that.”
All orders have been made to-go, Reihani said, and the cafe has implemented strict cleanliness procedures.