Some people’s dreams come true in the most unusual ways.

That’s certainly the case for Dave Stark.

Stark, 65, manages Rushin’ Turtle, a coffee house in the basement of the All Saints Episcopal Church on Malbons Mills Road in Skowhegan.

The coffee house is open 7:30-11 p.m. the second Saturday of every month. Last week, patrons celebrated its 16th birthday — not a significant milestone by most standards unless you consider Stark’s emotional investment in it.

He had dreamed of having a coffee house since he was a teenager fascinated with the beatnik movement. He wanted to open a place where people could gather in a warm and welcoming setting, listen to music and maybe perform themselves if they could drum up the courage.

His journey in launching Rushin’ Turtle was anything but ordinary.

Years ago Stark, a carpenter by trade, volunteered to drive an elderly woman to church (it happened to be All Saints) every Sunday. Not religiously inclined himself, he waited for her in his car in the parking lot until church was over.

“Then it started getting cold, so I came in here to get warm,” Stark said Saturday, in the basement of the church where the coffee house is now.

After seeing him there several times, a member of the congregation invited him to sit upstairs with the others in church. Reluctantly, he took her up on the offer, and then the strangest thing happened.

“Over time, I fell in love with the people,” he said. “What can I tell you? They’re just beautiful people. I just love them. They own my heart. Now I’m the longest-serving member of the vestry.”

In 1996, he asked the priest if he could try opening a coffee house in the church basement. The rest is history.

The coffee house is not actually part of the church and does not have a religious component, although Stark will tell you it’s definitely a spiritual place, where ordinary people who would otherwise never perform in public blossom.

They sing, play the guitar, violin, piano and other instruments, recite poetry, read essays and share their writing.

Stark is a gentle, modest man with gray hair, a short beard, and brownish green eyes. He doesn’t get paid for running the coffee house. He receives enough in donations at the front door to pay the rent and buy the coffee and ingredients for pies, brownies and other things he bakes to sell there.

He puts in about 14 hours preparing the food, getting the place ready and cleaning up afterward. He even takes the tablecloths home to wash and dry them. But Stark expects no praise for all his work.

“I get a lot of credit for doing this, but the truth of the matter is, I get more out of it than anyone else.”

He is energized by those who come to tell their stories and sing their songs of love, loss, joy and despair. He especially enjoys seeing particularly shy people come out of their shells.

“I love watching the people grow, you know? I don’t know what else to tell you. I love what happens. There was this one woman who was singing harmony at her table when someone was performing. I said, ‘You ought to be up there singing.'”

The coffee house seats about 50 people but draws varying numbers each month. They come from as far south as Augusta, and north from places like Bingham and Solon. The oldest patron to attend was in her 80s; the youngest was 7. Students from area high schools often come.

People sign up when they arrive and perform in that order. Stark says he doesn’t care how talented or polished someone is — everyone is equal at Rushin’ Turtle.

“I’ve often said, if James Taylor walked in here, he’d have to sign up like everyone else. These people are important. They’re sharing their lives with you. It’s a window into their souls.”

Stark floats among the tables in the warm coffeehouse, where tiny white lights glow from the ceiling. He chats with patrons and occasionally stops to check the sound equipment.

A middle-aged man plays classical guitar; a dark-haired girl plays strums a ukulele; an older woman with a German accent reads her poetry.

Some people have been coming here for the entire 16 years. Kevin and Joyce Flanagan of Solon raised their children, Devon and Meghan, in the coffee house. Meghan, now 26 and a large animal veterinarian, played classical piano and guitar there from the time she was 11 and still comes back whenever she can.

Joyce Flanagan says the coffee house’s success definitely is because of Stark’s ongoing labor of love.

“He’s just real dedicated to helping people get out from behind their fears. Having this coffeehouse definitely feeds his soul, but it feeds the rest of us, too. No matter what, David’s always here. He gives his all.”

Amy Calder has been a Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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