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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Faith

Rescuing old furniture restores her soul

L Cool’s faith-based organization helps women develop enterprising ways to earn a living

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PHOTOGRAPH BY KAREN PULFER FOCHT

Clean and sober for nearly 27 years, L Cool reclaimed her life and reconnected with her daughters. Now, she recovers broken and blemished furniture.

L Cool works in a small shop in Orange Mound. She repairs, refinishes, and resells wood furniture that has been worn by time, nicked, cracked, and broken by place and circumstance. She retrieves it from the trash or the curb, receives it from the arms of someone who is giving it away or giving it to her. “I like bringing furniture back to life,” the diminutive 61-year-old woman says as she looks at a chair without a seat. “Taking something that’s not wanted and turning it into something that is wanted.”

L Cool’s shop is filled with tools of reclamation — saws and screwdrivers, sandpaper and wood filler, rags and brushes, stains, and sealants. It sits inside a gated corner yard behind a beautifully restored Victorian house. For nearly a decade, the house has been home to My Cup of Tea, a faith-based nonprofit organization, a social enterprise that helps women develop enterprising ways to earn a living. Cool not only restores old furniture. She works with a dozen or more women to weigh and package teas and “tea accessories.” She also makes deliveries and helps maintain the house and yard. “When I got here, I watched guys cut the grass,” Cool says. “I thought, I can do a better job, so I asked to do it. I keep the yard up now.”

The two-story house with the well-kept yard and a wide and welcoming porch was built in 1902 on a plat subdivided from a plantation dotted with orange scrubs. The house rose and declined with the neighborhood. It was a home, then a rooming house, then a brothel. It was scarred by fire, stripped by thieves, soiled by pigeons and rats.

“This was a crack house when I was in high school,” L Cool says. “I used to get high right here on this porch.” L is short for Lisa. McClain is her last name, but Cool was how she played basketball for Melrose High School back in the day before she ruined her knee and began laying waste to her life. “Drinking and drugging,” she says. “It was the thing to do. I started out dibble-dabbling, smoking some weed, drinking. Then I went overboard and crossed the line to using crack cocaine. It was over then.”

When Cool was a child, God was a distant, demanding figure, difficult to reach, impossible to trust. Since she started working with the women at My Cup of Tea, God is with her all the time, encouraging and supporting her, loving her unconditionally. “Back then I was looking for Him just to give me [whatever I wanted],” L Cool says. “Now I wake up praying, thankful. I love it here. These are my sisters.”

Cool, whose mother was a nurse, and who met her father only once, had her first daughter right after high school. She had her second daughter right after that. She was in and out of the maternity ward and in and out of jail.

“Credit card fraud, mostly,” she says. “I got the cards from friends, so-called. Guys I know would break into houses and bring back credit cards. I took them to stores and used them.” Sometimes she got caught. The last time a judge sentenced her to 21 months at the old Penal Farm. She was pregnant with her third daughter. “I was nervous but all you can do is pray,” she says. “I had her in jail. Then I had to give her up. All my girls.”

Cool gave other family custody of her three girls. She served her sentence, then turned herself over to a small, private recovery ministry in Arkansas. “It was run by this little old lady,” she says. “She did it all on her own. No government. Only her and God. She told me there’s a crack house right across the street and if I want to get high just go on. I chose to stay inside.”

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PHOTOGRAPH BY KAREN PULFER FOCHT

Lashall McClain, or La La, and her mother, L Cool, at My Cup of Tea, the nonprofit social enterprise in Orange Mound.

L Cool says she has chosen to be clean and sober for nearly 27 years. She got her daughters back. She moved back to Orange Mound and moved from job to job. Over the many years, she has worked for a fish market, a Waffle House, a paper company, a telemarketing company, a cleaning company, a hotel, a discount store, and a railroad, which raised her hourly pay 20 cents over 7 years.

She came to My Cup of Tea six years ago. Her youngest daughter, Lashall, the child she had while she was in prison, had been working at My Cup of Tea for a while. Her mother calls her La La. “I’d drop La La off. She’d tell me I should come in with her,” L Cool says. “I’d say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to work with you. Then I’d laugh. When she left, I took her place. Now she’s laughing.”

Lashall McClain, or La La, who earned a degree in psychology from the University of Memphis in 2014, went on to work for two other faith-based nonprofits, Streets Ministry and Neighborhood Christian Centers. “I worked with kids who were scared to walk to school,” McClain says. “Kids who slept on the floor because they were hearing so many gunshots. The number-one concern in those neighborhoods is safety. It brought my passion back.”

In June, McClain graduated from the Memphis Police Department Training Academy and began her new career as a police officer. She says she has wanted to be a police officer since she was a small child at Hanley Elementary. “One day we had a career day,” McClain says. “Parents came and talked about their jobs. My mother wasn’t around then. One of the adults who spoke was a police officer. He told us, ‘If you don’t have a parent here with you today, I’m here to represent you.’ That won me over.”

L Cool smiles and shakes her head. “I had her in jail, now she’s on the opposite side,” she says. “That’s a God thing. Can’t be anything else.”

“Recovery is a God thing. I’m just here to do the work. I’ve already been forgiven. I had to forgive myself. Make amends to people I did wrong, like my granny. She forgave me. She said, ‘It’s okay, Boo.’” — L Cool

When Cool was a child, God was a distant, demanding figure, difficult to reach, impossible to trust. Since she started working with the women at My Cup of Tea, God is with her all the time, encouraging and supporting her, loving her unconditionally. “Back then I was looking for Him just to give me [whatever I wanted],” L Cool says. “Now I wake up praying, thankful. I love it here. These are my sisters.”

The women at My Cup of Tea, employees who earn up to $15 an hour, cook and eat together, garden and sew and package tea together, learn job skills and life skills together, study scripture and pray together. “The women who work here call it a sanctuary,” says Carey Moore, who founded the ministry with her husband, Rick. Debbie Hert is operations manager. Volunteers from Second Presbyterian Church and other congregations work, eat, and pray with the women. “Many of the volunteers have discovered loving their neighbor is not a command but a pleasure,” Moore says.

The Moores bought the house on the corner of Semmes and Carnes in 2013. It was restored to its turn-of-the-century glory by Dwayne Jones, owner of Dwayne Jones Construction and a leader of Orange Mound’s restoration. My Cup of Tea is working with Jones and United Housing to build four single-family homes on Semmes. L Cool is in line to purchase one. “Who could be a better neighbor?” says Moore. “She is a guardian of all that is good.”

L Cool’s own restoration has been years in the making. Her mother lives with her. Her daughters brought eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren into her life. Her sisters at My Cup of Tea helped her find stability and community. “Recovery is a God thing,” she says as she works to smooth a troubled tabletop. “I’m just here to do the work. I’ve already been forgiven. I had to forgive myself. Make amends to people I did wrong, like my granny. She forgave me. She said, ‘It’s okay, Boo.’”

L Cool has restored coffee tables, chairs and cabinets, dining room tables, desks, dressers, even doors. Shelley Hill, a volunteer, helped L Cool learn how to repair and restore blemished and broken furniture, and how to discern the difference between old and antique. With Hill’s help, she has recovered hundreds of pieces of broken and forsaken wood furniture over the years.

Not long ago, someone brought her a 100-year-old door. L Cool didn’t see an old, useless, worthless piece of wood. She saw a vintage tabletop. She removed the rusted handle and hinges, cleaned and smoothed the surface, but kept the time-worn wounds in place. Then she put legs under it, and a panel of clear glass on top of it. The women of My Cup of Tea use it as a study table.

For L Cool, restoring old, wood furniture isn’t her job. It’s her vocation now. She’s in the recovery business and wood is very forgiving. “I haven’t found one yet I couldn’t save,” she says.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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