Tucked into a suburban Chicago train station may appear to be an unassuming coffee shop. But what’s going on behind the scenes is much more than just your average cup of Joe.
For the seventh year in a row the shop’s owner Pilot Pete, a.k.a. Peter Thomas, has been the driving force behind ‘Coffee With a Purpose’, an annual community initiative that collects and distributes coats and other necessities to help the local homeless population brave the harsh Midwest winters.
Thomas says the idea came to him when he was trying to find a way to give back to the community as well as get others involved. He admits he was initially unprepared for the positive avalanche of responses. In the weeks prior to Christmas in the drive’s first year, he and other volunteers took in 3,000 coats.
This year, for drive number seven, Thomas and crew helmed the Coffee With a Purpose command center from the back of a 26-foot moving truck. The humanitarian caravan made a total of six stops throughout greater Chicago.
Pilot Pete’s brewed up 40 gallons of coffee for the occasion. The hot java was supplemented by donations from three other Elmhurst businesses eager to do their part.
Baked goods came courtesy of Rough Edges Confectionery; the truck and a driver were provided Good Move Movers, and custom truck signage was the handiwork of Angel Fancy Design Studio.
At each stop, Thomas invited people up to “shop” for whatever they needed—free of charge. In addition to coats, there was a wide selection of blankets, socks, hats, gloves, scarves, and personal hygiene items to choose from, all collected, sorted, and hung by gung-ho community volunteers.
Thomas notes that with the added impact of COVID, there were more people in need than ever this time around. “[When]we made this effort, all the shelters were on lockdown,” he said in an interview with the Elmhurst Independent. “No one was allowed in or out, that is, once you’re out, you can’t get back in, so there are more and more homeless people… This is a good year to be extra giving.”
But what Thomas and the community members who work alongside him are trying to achieve goes beyond merely handing out warm clothing and coffee. Forging a human connection with people who are so often invisible in society is an integral factor in their giving equation.
Thomas says making donations one-on-one makes it feel more genuine. “You never know where someone has been or what someone’s been through before meeting them,” he told the Independent. “With the homeless, we treat everyone the same or equal.”
According to Thomas’s proud mom, Joni Morgan, her son’s inclusive attitude is just who he is. “Ever since he was a little he always would find the outsiders and pull them in to make them feel welcome,” she told ABC’s Local-ish program.
Thomas sees coffee as the perfect metaphor to inspire positive action. “I love working with coffee as a tool of motivation to fuel and ignite people to soar beyond their expectations and to soar beyond society’s expectations,” he told ABC. “I’m fueling them and caffeinating them to do something better… something that will make them feel good about themselves so we can all grow together as one coffee family and fly beyond greatness.”
As of this writing, with plans for a new Elmhurst Metra station in the works, the future of Pilot Pete’s Coffee & Treats is a bit up in the air. Not surprisingly, the community he’s been rallying for years is now rallying behind him.
“Pilot Pete’s is more than a coffee shop. Peter Thomas gives back to our community in so many ways—from the annual coat drive for the homeless, school fundraisers, motivational quotes tucked into every cup sleeve, and more—his is the shining face every commuter needs to see. His ‘coffee with a purpose’ mentality is part of what makes Elmhurst a beautiful place,” reads the Change.org petition to keep Pete’s in place.
Since a tall, sweet, hot cup of coffee—laced with a heavy dollop of the milk of human kindness—is the kind of brew that belongs on everybody’s menu, here’s hoping Thomas will be able to continue serving up his special brand of hospitality for years to come.