If you’ve driven down Cruz Alta Road in Taos lately, you might have noticed the recent addition of a converted airstream trailer just across the street from Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. Like several other recent trailers to have popped up throughout Taos, the airstream is a food truck. However, food service is just one of the many facets of Common Grounds: A Taos Teen Co-op and Cafe.
The food truck — which is a part of St. James Episcopal’s youth outreach program and the efforts of Deacon and Youth Pastor Jill Cline — is a way for teens and young adults who need stability, a clean social environment or a part time job to access a place in which they can feel like part of a safe, judgment-free community.
Serving up green chile breakfast burritos and pulled pork tacos, Common Grounds is starting off slowly, open Mondays and Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but its staff hopes to begin gearing up for more business as the name and reputation spread.
Part of a bigger mission
Although Cline and the young adults running the cart are excited to be officially selling food out of the airstream, it was not a part of the initial plan. The goal was, and has always been, to create a safe place for the young adult population of Taos (those between the ages of 14 and 24) to gather away from unwanted parental or peer judgement and find an accepting community.
When the first EQ (emotional intelligence) meeting was held between St. James, Taos High School and Taos Academy in 2017, the topic of safe, fun, after school activities was discussed. “Out of that, some of the kids for both of those schools were like, ‘You know, there's not a lot for youth to do in the community. We need a place that's safe to hang out,’ ” said Jill Cline.
This is when the idea of expanding the youth group project into food service was first discussed. Cline said she had been seeking to create a safe spot for youth to come no matter their circumstances. After the Common Grounds group formed in 2017, conversations began about a way to create a space for youth to work, play, regroup and generally hang out in a safe environment, and the group was officially formed.
After doing some community outreach, Jill Cline and her daughter Sydney Cline (among several others) reached a deal with Kit Carson Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer Luis Reyes to rent the building located just across the street from the KCEC headquarters (123 Cruz Alta Road) for just $1 a year. The building had previously belonged to Dr. Villarreal and the Taos Clinic For Children & Youth before she relocated to Weimer Road.
The goal for the group had always been to serve some sort of food from the donated building. However, due to the overall hiccup to society, they were forced to improvise.
As labor and material costs continued to go up, so did the price of renovating the new building. While Cline said they have raised approximately $103,000 to help renovate it, they are still short about $25,000.
This is when the idea of a food truck came into the picture. With both COVID and the idea of a cafe in mind, the Common Grounds group decided to switch gears, focusing on a way to raise the additional money to renovate the building. “In order to pay for it, and to have gainful employment and leadership opportunities for teens, we're running the food truck,” said Cline.
Creating a different type of youth environment
Quickly, a small group of dedicated youth stepped up. The cart has been in action since they sold Philly cheesesteaks at their first event — Michael Hearne’s Big Barn Dance — in early September of 2021.
Since then, approximately 14 youth (ages 14-24) have been involved in the rollout of the new cart. However, their sights are set higher than food. Many see the food as just a small part of the overall goal of Common Grounds.
Originally, Cline said they started the group with several other adults and youth concerned about the mental health of their peers. After a rash of youth suicides throughout 2015 and 2016, the discussion shifted toward creating a healthy environment for teens and young adults to foster positive mental development.
After their first EQ meeting, it was clear an option for those in need of community support was necessary. Many youth involved with the new food truck said they are excited to see a new place for safe gatherings to take place.
“Growing up in Taos, for a lot of people, is really hard,” said 18-year-old Bakhane Chandler, who was working his first official shift at the food cart on Monday (Jan. 10). “I was really isolated from people because I’m not very talkative…[but] everyone here is very welcoming and supportive of me. It's nice to find a place that I felt welcomed.”
For Chandler, Common Grounds provided the exact environment he was looking for.
“You’re either on the street or you're out pretty much. It's kind of sad,” added worker Rou Maillis, 16. “I personally don't think that Taos is a great place for youth because there's just nothing… There's a school, there's a Walmart, there's some coffee places and that's about it. I think that this is really going to help there be more outreach to all of that,” said Maillis of the expansion of Common Grounds.
Ocean Cameron, 21, another longtime Common Grounds member, said he got involved through several friends, including Sydney Cline, and that he has found it to be a positive social outlet.
“It's a constant battle of trying to entertain yourself as a young adult here,” he said. “When you hang out, people are gonna end up showing up with drugs, so it's just kind of hard to put yourself in a safe environment where you're not getting pressured.”
Haley Tafoya, 21, was involved in the initial planning for Common Grounds. She said she is excited to see the operation finally begin to take off, and thanked the group for how it had helped her. “It was definitely life changing for me… without Common Grounds, I definitely wouldn't have had a lot of exposure to this type of community.”
Plans for the future
Eventually, the goal is to create a 24/7 youth outreach facility that has many more options for mentally healthy activity. Though the building is in slight disrepair, Cline said she has big ambitions for the operation.
While they wait to raise the additional funds to complete the renovation, Cline said they are focused on the activities they hope to bring to the building. This includes a music room, a TV and video game room, a free pantry room, private therapy rooms, handicap showers and bathroom facilities, a concession area and a cafe area — among others.
Once open, Common Ground aims to become a safe haven for teens seeking a positive social experience. Youth ages 14-24 and adult chaperones will be allowed inside the premises, and Cline said food will continue to be sold out of the airstream for the general public.
As she prepares for a new step in St. James’ youth outreach program, Cline hopes to create as many positive opportunities for those involved as possible. For now, the food truck is accomplishing several goals; providing employment opportunities, raising additional funds and bringing attention to the fact that youth need a place to go in Taos.
For more information visit taoscommongrounds.org, or mail a check to St. James Episcopal, 208 Camino de Santiago, Taos, 87571 with Common Grounds in the memo, or call 575-770-1327.