On Thursday mornings, the brightest thing in Norm’s Coffee Bar is 12-year-old AJ Carbajal’s smile. The homeschooled sixth grader has been volunteering at the non-profit since September 2017.
“Why I volunteer is because of the community and the people that go there,” said AJ, son of Shana and Alex Carbajal. AJ jokes that he made more than one person per day smile—but it’s probably more accurate to say anyone who meets him is cheered up by his attitude.
When Norm’s was changing locations and owners, AJ’s mom saw the request for volunteers on social media. “I immediately thought of AJ because he’s so outgoing,” said Shana Carbajal. “I thought AJ needs something to do, it’s good to develop his character and give back to the community.”
She imagined him helping to clean or organize after hours and was surprised when the owner Tami Lakey invited him to volunteer during business hours.
“I have known AJ for a long time,” said Lakey. “I knew he'd bring a really special gift to Norm's. He's been blessed with an amazing personality and he has turned that into an incredible way to bless our community.”
Some kids would consider what AJ does at Norm’s to be like chores. But AJ doesn’t mind. While he’s too young to be a barista, he greets patrons and holds the door, delivers drinks and pastries, sweeps and picks up, wipes tables and windows.
“Sometimes it’s a little slow, like if only five people come in,” said AJ. But it seems like the people make up for it.
“He’s gotten to know quite a few older folks that go in on Thursday mornings, and they’re like friends,” said Carbajal. “I say to him every day, ‘be a blessing to everybody there.’ But I know it’s blessing him too.
On Wednesday afternoons, AJ is a peer mentor volunteer in the after-school program, which is regularly attended by over 100 Santa Fe students. He hands out snacks and plays games, his relaxed, friendly attitude encouraging the kids his own age, some of whom he knew from baseball and other activities.
AJ recommends Norm’s Newton signature drink, the Railer. He drinks it iced or frozen, even in the winter — he’s just that cool.
It seems the community spirit will continue on in the Carbajal family as AJ’s little sister and brother grow older. Carbajal said she wants them to have their own ways of serving. She’s aware that the homeschooling plays a large role in allowing this flexibility.
“It’s awesome because they have that opportunity that no other kid that’s going to school eight hours per day has at such a young age,” said Carbajal. “It’s learning but it’s also that life experience that we have the freedom to be able to give our kids.”
When he’s not doing school or at Norm’s, AJ enjoys video games and playing baseball. And it's possible his great pitching arm has only improved by using it to sweep up at Norm’s.