Chicago Tribune | Aurora Beacon News | David Sharos | December 5, 2019

Aurora resident Sheli Massie, 43, had a life-changing moment about eight months ago and if things go well, she and other volunteers may open a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant in the city focusing on helping those in need.

Massie said she was on vacation earlier this year with her sister after having attended a social justice conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the two of them elected to visit a cafe “everyone was talking about.”

“It was called A Place at the Table and from the moment I went there, everything changed,” Massie said.

The cafe is one of several in the country operating on a “pay-what-you-can” basis and is connected with One World Everybody Eats, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing food security through its pay-what-you-can nonprofit restaurant model.

“I’ve done 20 years of social service and case work and along the way have also worked in restaurants doing something,” Massie said. “My husband and I have been raising five kids and even taken in foster children, but I knew after visiting that cafe that doing something like I saw there was what I was supposed to do.”

Massie’s new dream is to oversee a venture she wants to call The Goldfinch Cafe at a site somewhere in Aurora.

“Goldfinches are symbols of hope and joy,” she said.

She is looking to open the restaurant in about 18 months.

For the past few months, Massie has been mentored by Maggie Kane who runs A Place at the Table in order to learn how she can operate a One World Everybody Eats concept restaurant. Massie said she talked with Kane “about what I wanted to do in the community and I came home and told my husband, ‘I have this crazy dream.'”

“My husband suggested we talk to friends and see what they thought and I also went to some non-profit leaders here in town to get some ideas,” Massie said.

One of those leaders was Cat Battista, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, who said she herself is fully committed “to the vision.”

“I don’t say concept because this is bigger than that – it’s a vision and bigger than an idea and a lot of people are going to get behind it,” Battista said. “For me, it’s personally, professionally and financially worth the investment and time, and something that is desperately needed and wanted.”

Massie also spoke with Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, who she said offered “perspective and gave a lot of insight.” Dowd said Massie’s vision would “increase dignity.”

“Anything we can do to increase peoples’ dignity is a good thing and too often, people in poverty have to give that up to get what they need,” Dowd said. “I love the idea of paying what you can as it inherently adds dignity.”

The Goldfinch Cafe would work the same as other pay-what-you-can restaurants, with most of the help being volunteers and meals being offered with a variety of payment options.

“When people come in, they will be asked to pay a suggested price which will be very affordable,” Massie said.

They can also pay a lesser amount if that is what they can afford.

“If they don’t have money, they can volunteer and work here and every two hours of work will pay for one meal,” she said.

People can also “pay it forward” Massie said, and buy tokens which can be given to others in need of food or kept on the premises and used for those unable to pay.

“A lot of this is based on paying it forward and we’re going to be in constant need of fundraising and getting outside contributions,” she said. “Most of our staff will be volunteers but my job as executive director will be to build relationships, and I know with the kindness and generosity we have in Aurora this can be done.”

One of the first fundraising events for the restaurant was held Wednesday afternoon at R.C. Wegman Construction Co. at 750 Morton Ave. in Aurora.

R.C. Wegman Director of Business Development Colette Rozanski said she met Massie at a networking event and that like Battista, she and her company are interested in the restaurant’s concept.

“We agreed to sponsor this event and it’s safe to say we’re going to support it in the future,” Rozanski said before Massie addressed those who came to the event. “I heard about the concept and came back and told my company we were going to get behind it.”

Massie said she has had conversations with people interested in learning more about the proposed restaurant’s concept.

“People have said, ‘Do you want me to eat with the homeless?’ and my response has been that all people come to the table hungry for something – they may be lonely or afraid but if you look at one another across the table, you’ll see we’re not all that different,” she said. “We have to make the table longer and learn from those who have gone before.”