Blink and you might miss it, but tucked away in a Nelson Bay arcade is a little cafe with a big heart.
It’s called Paper Rose Cafe and it is, quite literally, changing lives.
Owner Jacquelyn Hibbert has worked there for the past four years. The former Melbourne school teacher lost her entire family when she was 21. Devastated, she sold everything she owned, packed her car and started driving north.
As fate would have it, her car broke down close to Nelson Bay and there was something about the town and its people that appealed to her. Hibbert decided to stay. She started working at the cafe, then known as Ethica Coffee House and owned by Jackie Wertz Wood, and before too long was cafe manager.
“Jackie offered me the business and I kept saying no but one day my partner sat me down and asked me why. I said ‘I don’t think I can do it’. And he said ‘Babe, you have been’. So I did it and here I am,” Hibbert tells Weekender.
Hibbert says her former employer felt a deep connection with the people of Papua New Guinea and was committed to helping them. So she started buying coffee beans direct from the country’s farmers, roasting them at her Tanilba Bay home and selling them at the cafe.
“Jackie was paying the farmers above fair trade rates but realised that they didn’t know what to with the money. They spent it quickly and it wasn’t sustaining them,” she says.
“She decided that 10 per cent of the proceeds of all coffee sales, as well as the contents of the cafe’s tip jar, would go straight back to the communities. Jackie travels to Papua New Guinea often to set up hospitals and schools. The women are now growing their own food and crops and animals and can sell them at farms to make more money.
“Jackie was never a fan of promoting what she was doing but I told her it was bigger than her. I’ve continued with the tip jar at the cafe and hold raffles and little fundraisers and all that money goes directly back to Papua New Guinea. We still use Ethica coffee. We’re seeing amazing results.
“One time Jackie went over to set up a study hall in the library but realised that many of the children couldn’t read because they had eyesight problems. With the help of our customers we ended up getting about 220 reading glasses sent over. The Port Stephens community is really on board.”
Hibbert is also committed to helping people closer to home in her own community. Working with teachers and job agencies to organise work experience at the cafe for young people is just the tip of the iceberg.
“I take on girls who have dropped out of school and whatever they want to pursue in life, I help them,” she says.
“I have one girl who is now a qualified beauty therapist and can do nails, make-up and self-tanning from her own parlour. Another girl has signed up as an apprentice chef with us and eventually wants to open her own business. I like to help the kids with their TAFE work, too.
“Obviously I’ve had quite a few slip through – a lot of young kids don’t want help. You take a risk when trying to help them.
“I have had a few workers steal and a few that have been on drugs and a few that have only lasted a couple of weeks, but I stand by what I believe and that’s if you want help, I will help you. Usually after two or three weeks you can tell where someone is at. You can tell if they legitimately want to be pulled out of their situation or if they’re happy to stay in it.”
You won’t find Hibbert in a classroom any time soon, though. Her formal teaching days are over.
“I didn’t enjoy it because when you have 25 or more kids in a class you can’t physically help every single one of them. And I didn’t like leaving anyone behind,” she explains.
“When I was in Melbourne I opened my own tutoring business but I would only tutor kids that were going to be kept down a year. I had a 100 per cent success rate of getting them through to the next unit level. My philosophy is that those kids who are left behind are left behind because the teachers aren’t talking in a language they can understand.”
Hibbert’s desire to help others is remarkable – even more so given what she describes as her “really rough upbringing”. She is expecting a child with her fiancé later this year but is still on her feet working, all day every day, and devoting her spare time to help improve the lives of others.
“I have two life philosophies. One is that you choose your destiny. You can choose to be a victim or you can choose to stand up, and I’ve found that standing up makes me happy,” she says.
“The second one is that if I can help reduce the amount of pain that someone else has felt, I will feel that everything I have gone through so far is worth something. You either rise above and make something of yourself, and for yourself, or you get stuck in it and never move forward.”
At Paper Rose Cafe, positive quotes and happy pictures adorn the walls. Even the teaspoons are engraved with a positive message.
“My definition of customer service is that the little things count. It’s the little things that build up and make the big things more worthwhile. Not everyone will notice the engraving on the teaspoon but everyone who buys a cup of coffee from us gets a little Tiny Teddy biscuit and a positive quote on their plate and to me, it’s those little things that bring more joy to the world,” she says.
“If you don’t read the message, you don’t read it. But everyone notices the Tiny Teddy and goes ‘Oh that’s fantastic’. It’s like fairy bread – you can’t be sad with fairy bread.”
As for food, Hibbert’s philosophy at Paper Rose Cafe is to cater for everyone as best she can.
“I try not to turn anyone away,” she says.
“I’ve had pancreatitis six times. I had that much scarring near my pancreas that it actually produced a severe garlic allergy, which is just bizarre. But I had surgery this year to get tumours and cancer removed and it released the pressure off the pancreas and now I can eat it again.
“My point is that I have an understanding of allergies and how inconvenient they can be. We try to cook as much as we can in store and I buy a lot of my stock from health-food shops, from the local butcher, from local suppliers, trying to keep the money local.
“I want to be able to feed every person that walks in.”
Hibbert is a glass-half-full kind of girl but yes, even she has bad days from time to time: “I’m only human but look, you sleep it off and you start over again the next day. I love what I do. It’s not work when it’s something that is in your heart.”
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