Sunrise Café gets Yale students out of bed and into the community

New Haven's Sunrise Café, a breakfast program for the homeless, serves an average of 160 people per day — thanks in no small part to Yale volunteers.
Volunteers serve food at a New Haven breakfast program for the homeless.

Volunteers assemble breakfast orders in the Sunrise Cafe kitchen. This morning, it is pancakes, sausage, orange juice, strawberry banana smoothie, and a protein bar.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day — so important that some Yale students are dragging themselves out of bed before seven in the morning and trekking down to Wooster Square for the first two hours of their day.

They’re rising early to volunteer at Sunrise Café, a free breakfast program operated by Liberty Community Services (LCS) out of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church (57 Olive St.) five days a week 7:30-10 a.m., year-round.

It’s good for people who are homeless to start the day off with a good meal,” said one Sunrise Café guest. “It starts you off in the right frame of mind. If you wake up thinking, ‘I’ve got nothing. … What am I doing? … Where am I eating,’ but then you can come here to eat and you suddenly have a more positive outlook for the day.”

Sunrise serves anyone who walks through the doors — unhoused or not — no questions asked, other than “First name and table number?” Ellen Gabrielle, coordinator of the dining room and volunteers, plays hostess in the Sunrise dining room, taking the names, table numbers, and, most importantly, breakfast orders of each guest.

The menus rotate, but on this particular day in late November, it was pancakes with sausage with a smoothie, protein bar, orange juice, and hot morning coffee. 

A man and a woman posing with a breakfast tray in front of them.
Two Sunrise Café guests who come every morning for a hot meal to start their days.

Supporting Gabrielle in the front is a team of back-of-house, kitchen-prep volunteers, which very often includes Yale students. The kitchen squad assembles the meals on trays that are the same bright orange as the Sunrise logo. Other volunteers run the completed breakfasts out to the guests, who dine with friends or new acquaintances in the café-style arrangement of the church basement.

According to Thelma Ragsdale, the Sunrise Café manager, “Generally, there’s a Yale student here every day. We have anywhere from 10 to 15 Yale students volunteering weekly.”

 “Yale has been our backbone since the start,” she adds.

How Sunrise began

The Sunrise Café began as a New Haven-Yale partnership — quite literally, as two New Haven-Yale marriages are at the core of its founding. Anne Tyler Calabresi, founder of LEAP (Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership) and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas and the originator of the idea for Sunrise Café, is the spouse of former dean of the Yale Law School, the Honorable Guido Calabresi. In 2013, Calabresi approached John Bradley, the executive director of Liberty Community Services (and spouse of Elizabeth Bradley, former Brady-Johnson Professor of Grand Strategy and head of Branford College), about partnering with LCS to launch a free breakfast program.

Calabresi, who is always thinking about how to better her community, had noticed a gap in programming for the unhoused and under-resourced populations of New Haven. Gabrielle explained Calabresi’s reasoning: “There is no place for them to go when they leave the shelters around six in the morning. The public library and service agencies don’t open until nine or ten, so a breakfast program was Anne’s solution.” While there are meal programs for other times of day, there are only two other breakfast-oriented programs in New Haven, one called Amistad House, which is run out of a private residence, and the other in the Hill neighborhood, which is operated by Catholic Family Services. Liberty Community Services has worked to serve the community of homeless individuals in New Haven for 30 years now, so when Calabresi approached Bradley, he thought her idea was a perfect fit for LCS.

Two women posing beside a dry erase board with a breakfast menu.
Ellen Gabrielle, coordinator of the dining room and volunteers, and regular volunteer Judy Hopkins taking orders at Sunrise Cafe.

The LCS is headed by executive director Jim Pettinelli; Michael Hall serves as director of Liberty Safe Haven and Sunrise Café. As Sunrise is privately funded for cost-saving reasons, they have shifted away from having the meals catered towards cooking from scratch in the kitchen of the church. To sustain this full-service operation, Hall hired two dedicated volunteers, Thelma Ragsdale and Sean Sellers, to work full-time — Ragsdale as café manager and Sellers as head cook. Otherwise, volunteers staff Sunrise, which continues to grow in popularity as its reputation spreads.

Yale volunteers rise to challenge

We opened on March 3, 2015 with seven guests. Today, we average 160 guests per day,” said Gabrielle. “We are totally volunteer-dependent, and Yale students support so much of that need.”

This is why Gabrielle, as the coordinator of volunteers, is thankful for Yale students like Darby Henry ’17 of Pierson College. “Darby has referred hundreds of Yale students to Sunrise, and many are still with us. We need the Yale student volunteers to operate, and I will be eternally grateful that Darby chose to connect them with Sunrise.”

Henry, who served on the board of Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project for most of her time at Yale,” recalls, “During my sophomore spring, John Bradley from Liberty Community Services came to one of our board meetings to speak about Sunrise Café, which was just starting then in 2015.

Reflecting on it now, I was probably unduly harsh with verbalizing my skepticism about whether any Yale students would actually wake up before seven on a weekday to walk past State Street for something that probably wouldn't help their résumés that much. I told him that the idea sounded great, but he shouldn’t count on many Yalies showing up to volunteer. That summer I ended up staying in New Haven, and I thought it would be a good time to eat my words. So, I volunteered one morning and then never stopped coming.” Eventually, Henry said, she even “stopped thinking about Sunrise as volunteer work.”

It was a community and a family that I wanted to be a part of,” she said, “and that meant that I needed to keep showing up.”

Anderson Tuggle, a third-year law student, has been volunteering at Sunrise for two years now. “As a first year, Guido Calabresi was one of my professors, and for his birthday, my class decided to all go volunteer at Sunrise. I really liked it that first time, so I just kept coming back. Guido and Anne are really lovely people who do a lot for the community.”

Word of mouth is as important to volunteer recruitment as it is to advertising Sunrise to guests, said Sofia Gulaid ’18 of Saybrook College. “The community service rep in my college advertised Sunrise Café, so I tried it out. I kept coming because it’s a wonderful community. It’s just the best way to start your morning.” 

Four men posing for a portrait.
Four more regular guests of Sunrise.

We are always looking for more students, especially first- and second-years, so we can keep our volunteering at Sunrise going,” she added.

Derek Mraz, a second-year law student, says he heard about Sunrise at a Yale Law School event about becoming engaged with the community. He had lived previously in Wooster Square, Sunset’s home neighborhood, and was drawn in initially because of familiarity with the area. The reason he keeps coming back, though? “The people,” he said.

Mutual respect, mutual benefits

At the café, there is a special relationship between volunteers and guests. In a reflection on her volunteer experience at Sunrise, Alissa Ji ’20 of Pierson College, notes: “[Sunrise] operates on a unique model where guests often also serve as volunteers, flipping pancakes and arranging breakfast trays, and volunteers are likewise invited to dine. A fluid relationship, rather than a clear bright-line, exists between volunteer and guest.”

Jesus, one of the volunteers on that late November morning, first found Sunrise as a guest. “I wanted something to eat, I came here hungry,” he said, “and then I started doing stuff. If everyone else can volunteer here, why can’t I?”

Even if guests never become volunteers, treating guests with respect and dignity is a core part of Sunrise Café’s mission.” A guest named John said of the volunteers, “Everyone who works here is kind, courteous, and has good manners. All in all, it’s almost like a restaurant.”

Another guest said that he comes every day. “It’s a nice place to go, and it allows you to get out of the cold, get warm, and fill up your belly. It’s a blessing.” He added, “It’s a godsend that these people do as much as they do for all of us. I never ever take it for granted.”

Kirk Bacon, another guest, said about the café: “It’s a lifesaver for those who don’t have enough resources in their own lives.”

Dozens of guests seated at tables in a restaurant-style charity kitchen.
Sunrise Cafe operates like a restaurant. Guests choose where they'd like to sit and have made-to-order breakfast delivered to their tables.

There are benefits for the Sunrise volunteers, as well — as Ji points out in in her reflection: “Volunteering at Sunrise brings together people from all different walks of life and allows us to contribute to the community not just as Yale students, but also as New Haven residents. With music blaring, volunteers jamming, and guests dining, Sunrise Café offers a fun way to engage in service, to build community, and to reevaluate our relationship with New Haven.”

Darby offered a similar view. “Yale students who volunteer at Sunrise get a community like they’d never have staying on campus. They get to serve, and truly serve, in a way that was definitely foreign to me before Sunrise. It turns out that people don’t care whether you have a Yale degree or not. No one wants cold oatmeal from you.”

Sunrise Café invites all members of the community to visit — be they as guests or volunteers. As several volunteers put it, “Come once, and you’ll be hooked.”

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Kendall Teare:, 203-836-4226