Liz Bennett’s career in fashion design ended “naturally,” but that didn’t mean the life change wasn’t painful. She struggled with depression. The experience made her more fully understand the needs of those in similar transitional situations.
“I became aware that everyone has brokenness and needs,” she says.
Liz and her husband, Mike, worked with a Panama City Beach ministry called The Ark—as in Noah’s Ark. Once a retreat center for The Alabama West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, the ministry now is devoted to housing those in transitional situations.
About eight years ago, Liz and Mike became directors. To fund the program, The Ark established The Pour coffee shop—a beachfront restaurant that serves locally roasted organic coffee drinks, and entrees and pastries made on-site.
In 2012, The Ark converted the Methodist Church retreat facilities to accommodate international students who needed housing in the Panhandle city.
“That was to create safe housing for them because human trafficking is a real issue for international students,” Liz says.
The Pour was created at the same time, conveniently located in front of the church campus in the heart of Panama City Beach.
In 2017, The Ark expanded its housing to include men and women reentering society from prison and those struggling with addiction but have nowhere to live.
The start of the transitional housing program came with a surprise resident.
“When we (The Ark) took over the property, lo and behold, it came with a homeless person,” Liz says. “He was our first volunteer and part of the launch to get the transitional housing approved.”
The program has grown steadily and is helmed by volunteers with strict guidelines, such as mandatory Tuesday meetings, job placements and continued sobriety.
Residents are invited to attend special events such as classes, Bible study and bingo.
“We have something every night of the week to keep our residents busy,” Liz says. “Because we’re a church, we help them grow spiritually. We believe in them when no one else does. We believe they can succeed. And they do.”
Today, The Ark houses 60 residents. The community joins them at dinners, meetings and special occasions.
“It’s proven to be fantastic because it brings community awareness to our front door,” Liz says.
The Pour operates as a nonprofit coffee shop, financing the housing ministry of The Ark.
Baristas are paid employees knowledgeable in crafting specialty coffees, baking pastries and producing lunch specials.
The shop partners with Amavide Coffee Roasters in Seaside—an organic, fair trade and sustainable coffee bean roaster and distributor.
The menu changes but includes breakfast items, pizzas and charcuterie boards.
“We make everything,” Liz says.
Couches, comfy chairs and tables are scattered about the space. Liz calls herself a “thrift shop queen,” which is where she obtained many of the shop’s furnishings.
A bookshelf is filled with curated reads—mostly spiritual books—that customers may enjoy on-site or take home.
Mike saw a swing inside another establishment and wanted to re-create one at The Pour. Swings were installed from ceiling rafters near the front door. Customers routinely fall off, Liz says with a laugh, but it remains one of the most popular aspects of the coffee shop.
“Our overall intent was to create lots of little living rooms, so you feel at home,” Liz says of the shop’s décor.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on The Pour’s events that normally fill up a week. This summer, live music returns, and other special events are in development.
Liz has big dreams for the future. She and members of The Ark plan to develop a tiny home village where graduates of the transitional program can own tiny homes within a 300-house village.
The Ark lacks funds for such an undertaking, but Liz trusts that will fall into place.
“All in God’s time,” she says.
Current residents graduate within six to 12 months after maintaining job security, sobriety and a savings account.
Many graduates serve as volunteers, giving back to the program. Liz says it is a continuous circle—and a critically necessary one.
The program works because mentors understand the problems of those coming into the program, she says.
“Our leadership is growing,” Liz says of those who graduate and continue to help. “Their hearts are that they really want to help the ones coming along.
“The most impactful volunteers are those rising up from addictions.”
You Can Help Make a Difference
The Ark has many projects and welcomes volunteers. Activities range from baking to construction, painting, cleaning and landscaping, along with event support.
12902 Front Beach Road
Panama City Beach
Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m.