The life expectancy of a coffee house is only two years, but with a few “miracles” thrown in, Mark and Marilyn Harms have brewed success at the FireEscape Coffeehouse on Main Street.
The faith-based hangout for high school and college age youth has begun its 21st year.
In 1998, their daughter Hillary was among a core group of kids who started the FireEscape.
“We were experiencing empty nest syndrome because she went to college and our son went to the Army,” Marilyn said.
When Hillary came back in the summer and was part of this project, the parents got involved in order to be around her.
The first location was on 14th Street but the name came before that.
The very first place the kids looked at was on the top floor of one of the buildings on Main, The only entrance was a fire escape. The fire marshal said they could only have 15 kids up there, so the location didn’t work but the name stuck. And as a Christian-based project, the double meaning was clever.
The present building at Main and Forest was purchased in 2000, but it wasn’t that simple.
Marilyn said it was the perfect location.
“When people used to drag Main, that was the turnaround,” she said.
But the $75,000 price tag was unreachable.
Funds on hand were about $5,000. The offer to pay that down and raise six $45,000 in six months was accepted.
“We raised $98,000 in six weeks, and had enough money left over to start renovations,” Marilyn said.
Mark said, “Cleaver Farm and Supply bent over backwards to help out and donated a demo model kitchen.”
The building was purchased in June and the doors opened in October.
The couple met in Houston when Marilyn was visiting her sister who was Mark’s instructor in occupational therapy.
She was from Indiana and he was from Dodge City.
They maintained a long distance relationship and married in 1975 and lived in Wichita where he went to Physician’s Assistant school.
He did a rotation in Chanute and Dr. Reuben Burkman asked him to stay.
“Reuben kept saying. ‘Can you give me one more year?’ and after 20 years on his death bed, he said, ‘Can you give me one more year.’”
Mark participated in musical theater and is still playing in the symphony in Iola.
Marilyn was involved in the school system as a homeroom mother, and also Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader and volunteer at Cherry Street 11 years.
They were also youth leaders at First Baptist Church.
“That’s just what you do when you’re in a small town, get involved,” Marilyn said.
An espresso maker that is still used was purchased at auction 20 years ago.
“We had $250 with us,” Marilyn said, and there was discussion if they could come up with $500.
The auctioneer said it was originally $7,000 and he wanted to start the bid at $4,000.
“Oh well, we’re done,” Marilyn thought.
But no high bids came and the FireEscape group bid $100. There was one other bidder, but he stopped the auction to inquire what they were going to do with the espresso machine and accessories. They explained about their youth ministry and they got the bid for $250.
One of the original co-directors Mike McGuire had the idea of a low power radio station, but the FCC said the application was blocked by a protest.
Long after Mike and Debbie McGuire moved to Tulsa, an inquiry brought a second chance, with a price tag of $10,000.
The day the plan nearly fizzled, Marilyn picked up the mail and there was an envelope from their church with a note, “Please accept this check for $10,000 to do whatever you need at the Coffeehouse.”
“It was just one of those miracle stories,” Mark said.
“Every time this would happen, it would get us more pumped into getting more involved.”
KFEX started 15 years ago and broadcasts to 60 foreign countries.
“It’s known all over the United States and the world,” Mark said of the Coffeehouse.
He said a family from New Zealand — the father was in a band that played here — stayed four weeks in the apartment on the second floor.
“We’ve had major, major entertainment here and it’s touched a lot of people’s lives.”
Host to more than 500 concerts, the FireEscape was recently named one of the top 10 concert venues in the state.
“We continue to have support from several of the bands that have come through here,” Marilyn said.
“They really believe in the ministry. It’s such a unique venue and unique ministry, they end up supporting us.”
The kids, and the difference made in their lives, is what it’s all about.
The Coffeehouse attracts 40 to 80 kids a night.
“We want to make sure everybody who comes in feels welcome,” Marilyn said.
She noted that today’s technology is a challenge.
“We want them to jump over screens and engage in one-on-one conversations.”
She said the biggest thrill is when these kids come back for a visit.
At Artist Alley, a young man dropped by, looked around and started to walk out.
“I said ‘Hey, Nick.’ He just started crying,” Marilyn recalled. “I gave him a big hug and he said, ‘I can’t believe you remember my name. You don’t know what this meant to so many people growing up. This was our safe place.’ That makes us so grateful.”
Some don’t realize that the FireEscape is sponsor with the Kansas Food Bank of the Mobile Food Pantry, that serves 400 plus families each time it comes to Chanute and distributed food at the Chanute Recreation Center.
The FireEscape is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6:30-10:30 am and for now, Mondays and Wednesdays from 8 am to noon.
Head barista Kendle Stockebrand and nine other volunteers work for tips.
Kyle Gregg, a former “Coffeehouse kid,” is the weekend manager.
The Harmses are in the process of passing on the mantel.
“We’ll be in our 70s and I don’t want this thing to die,” Mark said. “It’s too important for this community. It’s going to be hard to walk away. I’m trying to lead by example, bringing the next person in. It has to be a relationship, sharing the gospel in a meaningful way. We’re looking for people who see something missing and want to fill the gap.”