As Jonny Boucher made his way through his Sip of Hope coffee bar in Logan Square recently, he noticed a lot of familiar faces.
“Good to see you, man,” he said to a customer sitting at the counter sipping a latte. The cafe is packed, and it’s not just because the baristas make a great cup of coffee.
On the opposite end of the cafe, a large cursive sign on the wall reads, “It’s OK not to be OK.”
“Sip of Hope is the brick and mortar version of what we do every day,” said Boucher, who started a non-profit Hope for the Day in 2011 to break the silence around mental health. “I’ve lost 16 people to suicide, and I thought if I can just take this pain and I can do something with it, then I can allow others to do something with their pain.”
A hundred percent of the proceeds of Sip of Hope, at 3039 W Fullerton Ave., goes toward suicide prevention and mental health education.
While Boucher held a glass of water, I noticed two tattoos on each of his hands –– “See Something, Say Something,” and “You Get What You Give.” He also has the words “HAVE HOPE” written across his fingers.
“There are 121 people taking their lives everyday in America –– over 44,000 a year. What we need in society is places for people to gather because when you talk about it, you immediately raise the visibility,” Boucher said.
Boucher’s passion has expanded his outreach programs to 26 countries, and with his one café thriving, plans are in the works for more coffee shops in Chicago.
“The unfortunate thing about mental health is we don’t take it seriously until it impacts our lives,” Boucher said, noticing two Chicago police officers who walk into the cafe. “I’m always going over to the Chicago P.D. There are so many cop suicides and they’re asking, ‘What do we do?’ and I said, ‘We come together.’ Because how can a person put on a badge and serve the city if they can’t even serve themselves? So I go to the roll call and just remind them about what we’re doing. And we’re connecting more officers to crisis intervention training. I want people to be OK with talking about their feelings –– I mean first of all, men cry. Everybody cries. It’s like water, we need it.”
Sip of Hope has a monthly “Conversations Café” series and Boucher visits schools, and libraries. He even has gone on tour with Live Nation to spread his message.
“Some people come in and talk to the baristas for hours, and others just walk in to grab copies of our resources and leave,” he said, pointing to the piles of pamphlets and cards lining the shelf by the front entrance. “But the core of making an impact is getting in front of people….We’ve had people from all over the world come here…At one point in time they [customers] heard a chubby guy on stage say, ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ and it resonated with them.”
Word about Boucher’s efforts are spreading fast. While in Wisconsin over the winter holiday, former President Barack Obama mentioned Boucher and Sip of Hope in a tweet.
“The irony of that is I was going through a digital detox at the time,” Boucher said, “I was at restaurant and my phone was blowing up….I was trying not to answer it. My friends were like ‘You’ve made it!’ And I’m thinking, ‘No I haven’t. I’ve got to make my bed, make a meal, and pay my bills like any other day.’ Obama tweeting about the work we are accomplishing, that’s amazing, but now I have to get back to work because the work isn’t done.”
Boucher, who doesn’t receive “one penny” from the state said the reward for his work isn’t monetary.
“If I got paid 10 dollars for every time someone said I saved their life, this organization would be bankrolled for eternity,” he said. “…There is no magic wand with mental health but I try to tell people –– we’re all in this together –– it’s not about me it’s about we.”
Jenniffer Weigel is director of community relations for the Sun-Times and has had a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.