Open Door Tea Shop offers second chances and creative outlets for the formerly and currently incarcerated

Open Door Tea Shop in the Cole neighborhood, Jan. 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

In an unassuming storefront on the corner of Bruce Randolph Avenue and Franklin Street, lives are changing.

Open Door Tea Shop opened for business about seven weeks ago, and already the work they do there has benefited people in Denver and elsewhere in Colorado.

The little Cole shop employs people who were once incarcerated and sells art by people serving lengthy or life sentences, giving the proceeds directly to the families of those inmates. And the art is selling well.

“We’ve received an overwhelming amount of support from the community for our vision what we do,” said Kristin Cardenas, owner of Open Door.

“I challenged a lot of the artists to create something that was more motivated to where they are today and why,” she added. “We’ve sold most of that. It’s been the artwork that’s been selling the fastest. There’s a story behind it and it’s really connecting to the community on so many different levels.”

Kristin Cardenas inside her Open Door Tea Shop, Jan. 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Cardenas is also the founder and executive director of the Denver Arts & Skills Center (DASC), an organization that offers art therapy and artist mentorships to people who were once incarcerated. It was her work running that nonprofit that led to the idea for Open Door.

It started by me speaking at reentry fairs inside of prisons. We talked about the impact of arts with the incarcerated and it just kind of evolved like magic,” she said.  “We developed this program where we’re able to show the community some of what [participants] have faced to lead up to incarceration. … These people inside of prisons have no way to contribute to their families and no way to contribute to their children, so we have developed this program to make it not only an opportunity to engage the community but also to financially support their children and families left behind.”

Right now, Open Door is working with three Colorado facilities in Boulder, Sterling and Cañon City. The art program focuses on people serving long sentences, which means most of the participating inmates are serving life. There’s an application process in which they submit work samples, and Cardenas said it helps when the prison has a hobby shop that facilitates the artists’ ability to create and the connection with Open Door.

Employment at the tea shop focuses its attention on people re-entering the workforce after time in prison.

“We aim to support the formerly incarcerated through employment and art, so we hire the formerly incarcerated, train them,” Cardenas said. “My tea shop manager is formerly incarcerated and he runs a lot of — pretty much everything in the business, he’s been amazing.”

William Gomez inside Open Door Tea Shop, where he works, Jan. 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The manager, William Gomez, is for now the only employee at Open Door. He’s also an artist and a Denver native.

Gomez reached out to Cardenas two years ago. At the time, he was incarcerated and working on art for breast cancer awareness. When he got out, he called Cardenas again to see if she was interested in selling some of his work. She asked if he wanted to help with her nonprofit work, and he’s been doing that ever since — now managing Open Door in addition to serving as a board member for DASC.

When Denverite dropped by, Gomez had three pieces of art hanging among the work by inmates that circles the room. He said he hopes they can someday hang inmate art all the way up the walls to the high ceiling — a vision he got from hanging out at now-shuttered Denver coffee shop Paris on the Platte when he was living at Gemini Shelter.

“It kinda ties into how the group homes used to help us out with art and hobbies,” he said. “I was in and out of the system, group homes. My mom gave me up at 8, so I was in and out of the Denver Children’s Home, Urban Peak. When I was younger, my grandma drew a lot and painted, so I kind of learned from her. When I got frustrated and didn’t know what to do, that’s what I did, because it was the only thing I knew.”

Art on the wall at Open Door Tea Shop in the Cole neighborhood, Jan. 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

There’s value in the money Open Door can get to inmates families, but as Gomez points out, there’s a lot of value in art as therapy, too.

“For someone who has a lot of talents or even people who don’t have talents,” he said, “it’s just a good constructive outlet.”

Open Door Tea Shop serves more than 25 loose-leaf tea options and a range of chai teas, chai lattes, iced teas and energy teas, plus coffee, pastries, sandwiches and panini. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 3407 Franklin St.

Art on the wall at Open Door Tea Shop in the Cole neighborhood, Jan. 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)