Many AFS Exchange Students lead impactful lives after their time abroad opened their minds and taught them to collaborate across typical divides. They think globally, then act locally. One AFSer, Maggie Kane, is running with these ideas in an inspiring new way — a nonprofit cafe.

Maggie, AFS Returnee (U.S. to Italy ’08), is an early adopter of a new trend in social responsibility: pay-what-you-can restaurants and food markets. Her nonprofit café, A Place at the Table(Instagram: @tableraleigh), provides the community of Raleigh, NC with healthy meals that are available to anyone, regardless of their means. Here she is in front of her nonprofit café: We interviewed Maggie about her outstanding vision and the pay-what-you-can movement. And, we discussed how her study abroad experience with AFS gave her the confidence and mindset she needed to work on food security, community-building, and socioeconomic inclusion.

What inspired you to start your nonprofit cafe, A Place at the Table?

When I was in school, I started volunteering with a nonprofit day shelter in Raleigh. We took people and gave them something to eat and drink. I developed really strong relationships with people. I started taking them to soup kitchens, where you stand in line, get a plate, and only get a few minutes to eat. There was no community, no place to sit down and have a nice meal with someone. So, I started taking people out for meals and saw that they chose places like Golden Corral, and when I asked them why, they said “Because we can choose whatever we want, and someone’s serving us. We can get a waffle today or a salad, and that’s okay.”

That really shook me up. I realized people needed a place where they could have choice, where they could be served. Especially in Raleigh and in other places, the “haves” were going one way and the “have-nots” were going the other. I wanted to find somewhere this was not the case—where everyone can come together. So, I found the pay-what-you-can system, saw there were over 60 pay-what-you-can restaurants, so I said, “Okay! We can do this in Raleigh.”

In your Today show segment, you said “The community is taking care of the community.” Can you elaborate on that?

How a pay-what-you-can café works is people pay the suggested price, they pay more, they pay less, or they pay by volunteering. So truly, everyone pays something, and it goes right back into taking care of the community. The pay it forward concept goes by an 80:20 model– 80% of people pay the suggested price and more, and 20% of people volunteer or pay less– and it works! It shows that the community is taking care of the community. Those people who can pay more, pay more and that covers the cost of the people who can’t. Plus, the people who can’t pay are volunteering. This allows us and our staff to run every day.

How did your experience studying abroad in Italy with AFS change the way you think about community?

I loved AFS.  It was incredible. I had the best time of my life. It changed my life and who I was. I used to be someone who was pretty shy and didn’t have a ton of friends. Then I studied abroad, and I became the person I am now—full of life, extroverted, confident. It expanded my horizons to know there’s so many people out there. I have been so fortunate to meet so many people on this journey, both in Italy and here. People have some amazing things to contribute. They’ll come together around a project like this. Every day, I can see the community happen. Just like I saw a major community in Italy.

How did your experience in Italy shape the community work you’re doing now?

I met so many people abroad. It really gave me confidence, perspective, and an ability to do and be whatever I wanted to be. When I was a freshman in high school, did I ever think I’d spend my junior year in Italy? No! But I said, “I’m gonna do it!” That’s the same thing I said about A Place at the Table. I said, “I’m gonna do this.”

What advice would you give to someone considering studying abroad?

Do it! No matter what, do it! Game changer. I work all the time and I can’t imagine having the time to do something like that again. To have this opportunity to open your eyes to the world and to see all you get to see—if I could go back, I would. I think everyone needs to do this.  I’m still in contact with my host family! It was truly the best thing I’ve ever done. Other than A Place at the Table.

Besides encouraging young people to take the plunge and go abroad, do you have any advice for young people looking to make a difference in their community like you’ve done?

To not be afraid. If you’re passionate about something, don’t be afraid to take a step and help someone! That’s how it started with me. I told one person, thinking they’d think I was crazy, and it turns out they didn’t. Then I told another person, and they didn’t think I was crazy either.

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you hope and dream for this world, because it may work out! And it might be something that meets your world and community’s needs. I had a mentor who once told me this and I always think about it: “Your passion meets halfway with the world’s greatest needs.”

Is there anything you want people to know about living abroad that people may not know?

I think a lot of people fear it. They get nervous because they have no idea what it will be like. Looking back 10 years later, all those experiences were incredible. You will always remember the day you learned how to make pesto, the day you had to figure out by yourself how to get on a different train, or the day you missed your flight. You now have this storybook and you’re the keeper of all these experiences most people don’t get to have. The memories you make and the people you meet are lifechanging. And, you get to say you have these friends all over the world! You now have a place of people that care about you. The power of people is amazing. We only make it in life because of the people around us and supporting us.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I will stress that AFS changed my life. I know that A Place at the Table and the person I am now are because of AFS. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t study abroad. I wouldn’t be the confident community builder I am now in Raleigh. I wouldn’t know the people I know. I wouldn’t have been bold enough to take this chance. I’m forever grateful for my experience.

To learn more about how the pay-what-you-can model works at A Place at the Table, watch below!

To see Maggie discuss her heart-warming nonprofit cafe, watch her recent interview on the Today show! For more information on how you can study abroad with AFS-USA, visit our website.