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'Before I Die I Want To...' Gives Pause To Coffee Shop Customers

By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – Two large blackboards posted outside Purple Door Coffee in the Five Points neighborhood are starting an important conversation by asking people to finish the sentence, "BEFORE I DIE I WANT TO…" writing their personal responses for all over in chalk.

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"It just kind of caught me," said Anthony Cooper, a neighbor passing by the coffee shop. "I saw all the stories written on it and I kind of want to write on it."

Anthony Cooper (credit: CBS)

Catherine Hammond is an estate-planning lawyer with the Hammond Law Group. She helps people plan for death so they are not caught off guard by life-changing events. She experienced that in her own family when her mother died of Alzheimer's.

Catherine Hammond (credit: CBS)

A speaker at a Ted Talk six years ago shared the story of a neighborhood in New Orleans answering the same question by filling in the blank space next to "Before I die I want to" on blackboards.

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"It's about people having a plan in place so they can go on with their life," said Hammond. "They focus on death for a little bit of time, so they can focus on living."

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She first started placing her blackboards around businesses in Colorado Springs and then wanted to expand them across the state by placing them by a business in Denver. She selected Purple Door Coffee on 2962 Welton Street because their mission of helping homeless youth and adults find permanent work through a one-year training program at the coffee shop, complemented the goal of her project.

Mark Smesrud (credit: CBS)

"So much of our mission is geared towards people living their best and healthiest life," explained Mark Smesrud, the director of Purple Door Coffee. "We really try to create a message and an opportunity for our employees to think about their goals, six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, and this just ties directly into that."

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Employees, customers, and neighbors of the coffee shop filled up the boards in the first two weeks they were installed outside the business. Rain washed away many answers and gave a new group of people the chance to participate as well. Cooper was one of those contributors that got to share his answer in the second wave of responses.

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"I've been thinking about a lot of different things recently," he said standing next to the blackboards. "There has been a recent actual death in my family, so that's kind of something, so I think that's why it caught me the most."

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Answers outside Purple Door have included goals to travel abroad or learn yoga. One person wrote "own a hedge fund," while others put "Help & Contribute" on the board.

"One of the really encouraging ones was just to 'love without fear,'" said Smesrud. "I saw one that was kind of heartbreaking, which was to get my kids back."

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Hammond has seen firsthand the thought and emotion that people put into their answers as she watched them write their responses. She hopes it can help people to express themselves and avoid someone acting out their feelings from a personal tragedy that may harm others.

"I think a lot of what we see in today's world is pain coming out in really unhealthy ways," she said. "What would have happened if somebody had taken a moment to listen to somebody else's pain?"

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She plans to bring the boards to other businesses in Denver and across Colorado. She picks locations that can attract a variety of people from different backgrounds and get them to interact with each other. Coffee shops lend themselves as ideal spots for the boards. For now, Smesrud is glad to keep them at the Purple Door Shop and provide a venue for such an important conversation.

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"No matter who that person is, even if they're a stranger, they have value so therefore their story has value," he said. "We're glad that we can also create a space that can facilitate a conversation around that."

Cooper says it made him think about his career goals and forced him to put into writing a goal he has always had for himself. He wrote "Make A Movie" on the board.

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"I've always been really interested in cinema but I've always been too scared to go into it," he explained.

Cooper has taken classes in the past but says he needs to continue studying the field and learn more about the industry. He appreciates the direct approach of the boards and the impact they've had on him in such a short time.

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"When they think Anthony Cooper, what do I want them to think?" Cooper said. "When you pass what are you leaving behind?"

To learn more about the boards and consider hosting them, contact Hammond Law Group.

LINKS: Purple Door Coffee
Ted Talk "Before I Die I Want"

Shawn Chitnis reports for CBS4 News at 10 on weekends and CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. throughout the week. Email him story ideas at and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.


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