Leadership In Action
Pros on a Mission: Meet Matthew Olczak
Whether it’s volunteering, advocating, or donating, helping others just comes naturally for Underwriting Operations Analyst Matt Olczak. For as long as he can remember, he’s always had a passion for contributing to his community in ways that could help it thrive. He later began to focus his volunteer efforts on food insecurity and eliminating the stigma surrounding it. He can distinctly remember the moment he became a food advocate when a close friend brought his family over for Thanksgiving dinner. “He couldn’t afford to put a meal on his table, but he was too ashamed to go to a food pantry.”
“I knew I had to change that perspective.”
Matt immediately started volunteering at pantries to help make sure other people didn’t feel this same stigma. “If I needed to give people a box of food to make them feel at ease, then that’s what I was going to do.”
Making a Difference
Fast forward, and Matt has found a worthy ally in his food advocacy efforts. His fiancée, Emily Wolfe, and her mother, Pastor Mary Wolfe, feel just as strongly about addressing the stigma and ending food insecurity. In 2019, in conjunction with One World Everybody Eats (OWEE), they created Café Esperanza—a pay-what-you-can café designed to deliver quality meals to the Reading, PA, community. Emily described Reading as a “food desert” where grocery stores aren’t easily accessible for locals. Those stores that are accessible are dollar stores with a limited selection of quality, nourishing food. “Because there are no viable options available, people here rely on food pantries,” Emily explained. So, the Wolfes were determined to find a way to bring fresh, healthy meals to the people in the community who needed it most. Matt jumped on board as Volunteer #1 to help her and Pastor Mary achieve this mission.
Paying It Forward
So, how exactly does a pay-what-you-can café work? Exactly as it sounds. You pay what you can afford—even if that’s nothing at all. Prices for items aren’t listed, and funds aren’t required. Those who can pay are encouraged to do so in the form of a donation. “The stigma arises whenever a person feels confronted with paying,” Matt explained, “so how do you end the stigma? Don’t ask for money.”
Café Esperanza receives donations from local organic farms in the neighborhood. They even have a chef on staff, Chef Angelique Gilyard, who prepares fresh meals daily to ensure the quality isn’t compromised. Emily is staunch on providing diners with healthy, restaurant-quality meals and even locally sourced coffee.
While Emily and her mom planned to unveil the café to the community last March, COVID derailed their plans. Still committed to their food advocacy mission, they quickly adjusted their strategy and created takeout meals for local families, feeding as many as 300 people in a single day. To help them achieve this monumental feat were the local farms and artisans that provided Café Esperanza with food and produce throughout the pandemic. As Matt explained, “The café is available to anyone who wants a good meal.”
“If you can pay, awesome, if you can’t, there’s no shame in it”.
A jack of all trades, Matt offers a helping hand wherever he can—packaging meals, balancing books, coordinating social media posts, anything and everything. “I told Emily I’m happy to do whatever’s needed to support the café and the community.”
Although the café is currently closed to indoor dining, they’re looking forward to the day when they can open their doors wide—this time with familiar faces, well-nourished patrons, and a sense of community that you can’t quite find anywhere else.
When that happens, Emily and Matt encourage people to visit the café and experience it for themselves. “Come to Reading, and try the food, give us feedback. If you like what we’re doing, pay it forward. We want you to have a good time and help support our mission.”
Expanding the Mission
Matt’s passion for the café also lends to his desire to rebuild the Reading community. The café’s located in a neighborhood that has been neglected for years, so he and Emily envision it as a type of community center that can help revitalize the area. “For far too long, we’ve become too introverted and focused on ourselves and not focused enough on our neighborhoods.” They hope Café Esperanza will be a jumping-off point to eventually bring art and community back to the city and ultimately strengthen the bond between Reading and its residents. They believe that in time, Café Esperanza can be a space for groups to come in and truly connect through open mic nights, poetry slams, and even business meetings. “I’m in this to feed people, and I’m in this to rebuild Reading. It’s a chance to unite the community, and that alone drives me.”