Coffee beans & human beings

Mark Potter has a PhD in bio-chemistry and for years worked at the University of Adelaide as a plant pathologist. One day in 2002 he just gave it all up because he despised his genetic modification work – food that we eat – to do a 10-day course in cheesemaking.

Some may suggest he had brain fade with sizeable economic impact, but this whim to dare to play a role in changing how we go about life says a lot about his character. For that, our little world is a better place.

The irony is that he began earning more from cheesemaking, initially as the founder of Blessed Cheese in the main street of McLaren Vale, and teaching the art. It also led to trying to make the perfect cup of coffee in cafes, including 3 Monkeys Fine Foods in Willunga, and as a volunteer teaching these skills to 13-17 year-old kids in the region.

However, this wasn’t about money, but a self-discovery that people today are looking for a real purpose in life. “I have found myself meeting more and more people who want to give up their job that is quite high financially because they are just sick of only working for money,” Mark said. “They want more, something that has a sense of purpose and in return a sense of heart.”

For Mark, 46, a father of two, it has been a remarkable crusade. He doesn’t see himself as a hero, but importantly he feels good about himself inside, which is a vast difference from when he stared at the bottom of test tubes.

Change needs a catalyst, and and this case it was a few years ago when one of the kids came in for his barista class in McLaren Vale showing self-harm cuts up his arms. He was bristly; he struggled to communicate and he was the only boy in the class with seven 14-year-old girls. Within 15 minutes he settled in, and Mark likes to believe the fact he was treated on par with everyone was why he fitted in very nicely.

“That was the benefit for him; to be treated well,” Mark said.

Family and Children’s Services heard how this lad from an incredibly confronting background pinned his homemade barista certificate on his wall and then set about getting a job, so they approached Mark to take on more just like him. The Bendigo Bank came on board, sponsoring a troubled kid for an ‘every-day’ one who joined the class. That is special.

Then, out of the blue, Mark was recently approached by a philanthropist who essentially built a not-for-profit cafe-training centre in Whitmore Square in the city called Outside the Square, which was officially opened several weeks ago. It’s the space currently used by St Vincent de Paul as a soup kitchen where every night 60 homeless people – here they are referred to as companions – have dinner. Reality hits terribly hard in this environment.

Mark will hold his barista classes in St Vinnies up to 3.30 most afternoons before returning to continue his work in McLaren Vale. The concept is, the profit he makes from his cafe work and barista training essentially goes back into helping these companions and others in need to find a way of opening the doors that have long been shut on them.

“I want to harness the dollars of people with means and over-deliver their expectations on what they are getting, whether it be food or training, and the profits then directed into providing exactly the same experience for the underprivileged,” Mark said.

“The barista classes are expanding daily, not only for kids, but adults. I have been working in close contact with Vinnies, but it’s not only them we will be supporting. I hate pay-up front concepts where people that pay for a coffee are expected to also leave a donation. There is a degree of guilt with it, and I don’t want to put that on anyone. I just want people to have the bonus of feeling good about what they are doing opposed to the pressure of what they should do.

“I guess where I am coming from is that these troubled kids have come from a challenging environment. No one is born bad; people just get caught up in a bad environment and you do the wrong things and round and round it goes.

“The ability to provide them with a reflection that everyone has the ability to be as good as anyone else is one of the strongest ways to bringing them back. It allows their self-respect and ego to come back, and it takes away that negativity so they can get on with living.

“This experience hasn’t really changed my opinion on today’s young people. I have huge respect for them. I have worked with troubled kids before, and I have always been open as to where they are coming from, and that’s why this works so well.

“People make mistakes, get caught up and poisoned in their environment. Their bad choices lead from that, like sticky tar.

“Even at their worst, should they run you down and hurt you it is simply a manifestation of their pain. At their best they will be grateful that you are helping them out of their tar.

“At their worst they might push that hurt out at you. You just need to be aware that the hurt is theirs not yours, and you don’t need to pick it up. You can contend it any way as long as you are providing light in a dark place.”

The work at Whitmore Square has already opened Mark’s eyes almost beyond belief. The day we met there was a hint of trembling in his voice as he spoke of a man he had met hours earlier on the footpath.

“It was out the front of St Vinnies,” Mark said. “This guy was 28 and he had an eye physically removed and not all that cleanly. You could see in the socket.

“With his cane I’d say he must have been 90% blind; he couldn’t find his way into the homeless shelter, to the gate or the button to press. I saw him and took him in there.

“He stunk, he was dirty and he was clearly a brawler and that was how he lost his eye. His teeth were knocked out. But do you know what? He was a good fella; I mean that. It didn’t hurt me to walk him down and have a yarn with him.

“I guess these experiences become the equalisation. It is premised on the fact 95% of life is chance; he could have been born into a different place, had a different life experience and been a doctor or anything. I have a lot of trouble allaying blame to that sort of environment.

“I guess there are some people in gaol who are probably not bad people either; they just got wrapped up in bitterness that’s gone around and around them and they feel there is no way to unravel that.”

Obviously, Mark’s journey is not all about the immense satisfaction of discovering what it means for a kid from the hard school of knocks to earn a barista certificate. He said there were nights when he went home feeling a sense of helplessness, only to be reminded the next morning no effort is in vain.

“I feel good about teaching, particularly working with those disadvantaged, not necessarily just kids,” Mark said.

“I am excited about my next stage in all of this, putting together some courses on the premise that if you are aged between 12-18, and even if you’re doing well or have a job, you probably won’t get your mum’s lasagne recipe.

“If we can teach young people some basic kitchen husbandry – how to go to the supermarket and buy stuff that is going to fill the pantry and allow them to cook rather than buying snack packs, and how to cook a meal that you can break down to five or six lunches rather than go to McDonald’s every day – then I think a lot of problems will be resolved.”

Mark said he has been encouraged to do this work through the help of good friends and multiple businesses getting behind a concept and donating time coffee and venues. There has been the networking through the Fleurieu Future Leaders Group, which is also sponsored by Bendigo Bank. It has also joined quality people from places like local coffee supplier Villeré, LJ Hooker Aldinga, Beach Road Wines, and Blessed Cheese. There is room to grow this list.

“Among the many things to come out of the Fleurieu Future Leaders Group is that in order to be happy in a work-life balance and happy as you work, if your money is covering your basic bills then giving you more money doesn’t lead to happiness,” Mark said. “It has been proven scientifically; I have done the assessments.

“Enjoying your work is about having a level of autonomy, a level of mastery, the ability to improve, and it having purpose. It is almost a revolution that is happening; people are so fed up with soleless careers and they are looking for that purpose.

“If you follow any futurism on what life is going to be like in 20 years it is nothing compared with the expedience in change over the past 20. Most white collar jobs will go. Artificial intelligence will even take over lawyers. Already there are thousands of people in America with a law degree who cannot get a job because we are now using Google Law.

“There is going to be this shift, and the philosophers suggest the next stage is really going to be about finding meaning because we are going to run out of work. It just seems to be a seeding point at the moment where we are heading towards critical mass. Maybe Generation C sees that and it never happens.

“The need to care for each other a lot more has never been greater.”

As we all live in hope, more than likely this weekend Mark will make some cheese at home, probably a washed rind from goat’s milk, or maybe a blue. There is also the chance of catching another five squid in his canoe like he did a few weeks ago off Aldinga.

The point is, the life about this inspirational man, a future leader, is all about doing things that he likes and helping others less fortunate to once again want to like doing things.

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