Connor Schoen and Tony Shu were just weeks away from opening Breaktime Cafe, their job-training initiative for youth experiencing homelessness, when the pandemic hit. They knew they had to do something fast or risk having their whole idea fall apart.
“In the beginning, when it became evident that the cafe was not going to be open in May, we were grappling with unknowns,” Shu said. “It took us a while and a lot of reflection to realize that sometimes you have to be able to let go. Letting go temporarily allows your eyes to open to see what other needs are out there.”
So Schoen ’20 and Shu ’21, who met as first-years while volunteering at Harvard Square’s youth homeless shelter, Y2Y, came up with a creative solution. Instead of learning about the food business through a cafe, program participants could run a service that produced and delivered meals to organizations and families across the state whose members were homeless, disabled, senior citizens, or impacted by the coronavirus. With the support of the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, where Schoen and Shu were 2019 Cheng Fellows, they were able to clearly define the social impact they wanted to have, and adapt their model given the changing environment.
In April, Breaktime opened up 10 spots for young people experiencing homelessness and launched the meal-delivery service. Five months later, it has provided more than 30,000 meals to communities in need.
According to Schoen and Shu, the service has a “double impact”: providing jobs and supporting the vulnerable.