The Looney Bean’s Lela Williams is on a mission
‘Every Seventh’ project a quest of hope, compassion
Lela Williams has seen things most people could not bear and done things most people could not stand.
The co-owner of the Looney Bean said she has watched her family lose everything and flee to America with only what they could carry; she has run from gunmen, leaving her vehicle behind, disappearing into the jungle like a wraith.
After each event, she has come home to the comfort of this country, only to be pulled back to work again and again with those displaced by war.
She is driven, she said, by something stronger than fear.
“I have a profound and deep place in my heart for people torn by war,” she said, sitting in the afternoon sun in the warm, fragrant coffee shop in Mammoth that she owns with her husband, Brad Williams.
“I’ve lived in three war zones,” she said. “In Iran (Williams is half Persian) when the Iranian Revolution began; in Israel during the Intifada uprising; and in Mexico when the Zapatista Revolution began. I know what it’s like to have to think every day about whether it is more important to get food for your family or risk getting blown up when you cross the street. It is those people, especially the women and children, that live that way every day, that make these kinds of decisions every day, that I feel my heart drawn to.”
Williams, 41, is a slight, dark-haired, intense woman, a former teacher, with a master’s degree in organizational management. She and Brad moved to Mammoth from Southern California in 2004—they met and fell in love in Mammoth many years earlier—leaving behind a beautiful home and successful careers (Lela was a teacher, Brad, a commercial pilot-in-training).
After moving to Mammoth, she took some time off from working in war zones to raise a family. The couple managed a condo complex and in 2010, they bought the Looney Bean. They now have two children—Avi, 8, and Psalm, 3.
Somehow, through the recession and then during one of the more challenging winters in Mammoth history, they managed to keep all their workers employed.
By 2011, “the Bean” was thriving and Williams decided once again to go back to the kind of ravaged places that call to her, even if she could not do it in person.
This time, it was the Congo, one of the most war-torn countries in the world.
A deeply spiritual person, Wiliams finds sustenance and meaning in her Christian religion. One verse in the Bible in particular spoke to her.
“For six years, you are to sow your land with seed and gather in its harvest,” it reads. “But the seventh year, you are to let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor among your people can eat (Exodus 23:10,11).”
Williams is not a farmer, but she makes a living selling coffee drinks. She and Brad decided to take the profits from every seventh bean they bought and plow it back into the world, feeding those who need it most.
They named the new-born nonprofit Every Seventh, and as of this month, it has give two villages in the Congo wracked by war, poverty and endemic rape a new start—and a long term lifeline.
The money from all those coffee drinks has gone to buy sewing machines and crop seeds, farm implements and animals such as chickens—items that are desperately scarce but absolutely critical to creating a sustainable life in the midst of war.
To date, the nonprofit has raised enough money to make some 300 people— mostly women and children—self-sufficient. With the nine new sewing machines the money bought, the women make and sell clothing, giving them a source of income, a way to send their children to school, and, just as critical, a future.
With seeds and chickens and goats and farm tools, the jungle yields a rich bounty, allowing the villagers a long-term source of food. And the money goes directly to the villagers.
Unlike many large relief organizations that donate food but not the tools for sustainable living, and that see much of their donations go to bribes and graft, Every Seventh’s contributions are direct.
The only other group that touches the money is a person who Williams deeply trusts and who lives and works directly with the villagers.
Those who know her are not surprised at what abundance has come from the profits of selling something as simple and small as a coffee bean.
“She believes there is always a solution to every problem, no matter how big or crazy it is, and she won’t stop until she reaches it,” said close friend and manager of the Looney Bean, Jenna Bowersox.
“Yes, she’s a deeply emotional, compassionate, loving person, but when it comes to solving problems, her decisions are based on logic. There’s very little reaction, it’s always action, with her.”
“Maybe it’s the Persian in me,” Lela said, as the holiday crowds at the Looney Bean swirl around her. “My husband teases that I always want to get everyone ‘under the tent’ (a Bedouin tradition) and host whoever comes our way. I love community.
“I love ideas shared, memories made. I have a high value for connection and a coffeehouse hosts all kinds of people. It’s the modern day watering hole or a type of community living room.”
Williams has deep brown eyes that look as if they were lit from within. When she greets you, her warmth is tangible and visceral. She radiates it. It is hard to believe she has seen what she has seen, lived through what she has lived through.
But she has and now, it’s time to give back.
“I don’t have to think about whether or not, if I need to go out and get food for my children, I risk getting raped,” she said. “I don’t have to think about moving my children to the hospital for shelter, day after day, fearing an attack is coming. And that’s the kind of fear they live with every day.”
Her idea has caught on in Mammoth—she now has two other business owners donating the profit from every seventh of the product they sell to the nonprofit—and she hopes other businesses will join them.
“She can make something out of nothing, like no one I know,” said friend, business owner, and a partner in Every Seventh, Lauren Tracy.
“She is graced with that gift. She can pull solutions out of what seems like thin air. She’s in a kind of flow, I think because of her discipline with her time with God. She won’t give into fear, and she doesn’t believe in scarcity, and from those places, she seems to always be able to tap into an abundance that most people cannot even see as being there.”