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Building skills, one cup at a time at Gimaajii in Duluth

John Parker hands Marlene Diver of Duluth a toffee-flavored coffee during the grand opening of a coffee shop in the lobby of Trepanier Hall, 202 W. Second St. in Duluth, on Thursday. The coffee shop, sponsored by the American Indian Community Housing Organization, is open to the public and gives residents of its housing -- like Parker -- a chance to build their people and work skills. "This is going to be the best coffee place in town," said an enthusiastic Diver. (Bob King /

At American Indian Community Housing Organization in downtown Duluth, the staff takes on issues facing the people it serves.

Among them is helping its residents at Gimaajii -- the former YWCA building -- find jobs and increase their income. But many lack confidence, skills and work experience. Some are uncomfortable around people they don't know and need to improve their communication skills.

So staffer Barry Skye had an idea. Why not open a little coffee shop on site and put them to work?

"He's working with people who live here, who are looking for jobs," said Patti Larsen, AICHO's program coordinator. "He's building skills with them which, in turn, builds self-esteem and helps them get out."

So last week, Gimaajii Enterprises Coffee Shop opened for business in the lobby of the adjoining Trepanier Hall at 202 W. Second St. It's open to the public from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, selling flavored coffees, tea, cold drinks and snacks.

They hope to draw people who live and work in the area.

"We'll be catering to people in the community," Larsen said.

The workers, meanwhile, will get stipends from AICHO as they gain skills.

"These are young adults over 18," Larsen said. "The majority are Native American and all live right here in Gimaajii."