three trees, One Vision
Story by Liz Beaulieu // Photos by Kevin McMillon
The tables in the small shop, usually spaced evenly along the floor, are pushed together to make room for a makeshift stage on the left. A man donning a simple blue shirt, his hair tied into a short ponytail, is singing and playing along to his guitar.
The sounds bounce off the sage green walls and the audience swells with people from the street.
The song is called "In the Garden," and Mitchell Senti wrote it himself. Senti is the director of Envision Ministries, which owns the nonprofit coffee shop. He sees the three trees as a ministry - a place where people of all faiths can come in, rest and seek a friendly, safe environment.
"It's not a Christian coffee shop in that it's only open to Christians," he says.
Sixteen local churches fund three trees to keep the coffeehouse alive. Almost all the baristas are volunteers, and they donate their tips each month to other nonprofits in town, Senti says. Approximately 15 to 20 volunteers spend four to five hours per week each at three trees, he says. But it isn't just a coffee shop, Senti says; three trees operates to help the community through outreach and plain old goodwill. Volunteers give away two-day-old baked goods to the homeless, who can complete chores like scrubbing dishes and sweeping for coffee, he says.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are "chore list" days, says Dann Warick, co-owner of three trees. The homeless can come in on those days and do the chores on the list. It gives them a sense of ownership in the shop, he says.
"I think it's more honorable and dignifying to allow somebody to work for something," Warick says.
Carrie Dennehy, a three trees regular, walks in at 1:15 p.m., minutes after Warick flips over the "closed" sign on the door. Setting her mammoth sketchbook beside a stack of art books, she orders a cup of green tea with jasmine.
Dennehy found three trees by accident - she wandered in on a Wednesday "discussion night" her second evening in Bellingham after leaving Massachusetts. After that, she couldn't stay away, and enjoys spending her nights somewhere other than a bar.
"I came down for another [discussion night], met a couple people and I've been haunting the place ever since," she says.
Discussion nights happen every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the coffeehouse. They are open-forum style gatherings where regulars and visitors can discuss pretty much anything. The key is encouraging people with different viewpoints to listen to each other and talk respectfully.
Dennehy, who moonlights as a painter and photographer, compares the atmosphere at three trees to Cheers, where everyone knows your name. The baristas know the regulars and often strike up conversations with strangers, and Dennehy, every time she visits. Now even Dennehy volunteers, hanging up concert posters and advertising the coffee shop's events around downtown Bellingham.
Volunteer barista Ken Walker has worked at the three trees since it opened in December 2005, and performs at open mic nights when the mood strikes. Senti is teaching him to play the guitar, and Walker plans to perform with it sometime this summer, he says.
"I sing sometimes or tell poems," Walker says. "It depends on how my heart feels." Although he has been volunteering for two and a half years, he is going to ask for a paying position soon because he plans to attend Bellingham Technical College. He hopes to stay on as an employee.
Warick, one of the few paid employees of three trees, stands out in the casual three trees in pressed khakis and a black polo. He has just come from his other job as a barista at a Starbucks in Lynden.
Warick met Senti when they both worked at The Lynden Bookshop (now Katz! Coffee & Used Books). Senti and his wife decided to start three trees, and Warick said he wanted to help. Now he dashes between three trees and Starbucks - "Apples and oranges," he says.
Warick, having finished his latte, gets up to join the conversation at the next table, where Dennehy is telling a joke to a duo that just walked in. He has to maneuver his chair into the small crowd already gathered at her table. It's Tuesday, and regulars are claiming their usual spots for open mic night. three trees only seats 70, and tonight is going to be another full house.