The haunted-looking young man stands in the candy store when a reporter is asked to pray with three men who speak words of encouragement.
When the reporter joins in, the three men, in gentle, comforting tones, pray for the wellbeing of the younger man, who leaves right after the group says “Amen.”
The Sugar Shack, 1939 W. 4th St, Davenport, is more than a neighborhood candy store. It is a refuge, a sanctuary, a warm place where children are safe from the elements and the world at large.
The soft-spoken Michael Stratford is the center of it all, at least physically. Humble and quick to deflect praise, he says Jesus is at the core of all the good things that happen in the store.
Donna Stickling, of Blue Grass, nominated Stratford as Quad-Citizen of the Year.
“This man’s doing a wonderful service for the community,” she said. “He’s there early in the morning. Children come there to gather before they go to school.”
Without the Sugar Shack, children would either be left home alone or wandering the streets, Stickling said.
He opens about 7:15 a.m. on weekdays so kids can come in and wait for the school to open. Parents, he said, know the store is there for their kids.
Children are kept comfortable there – warm in the wintertime and cool in the summertime with air conditioning, she said. At kid-sized tables, they color, paint and do crafts before and after school.
“He offers a free meal most Saturdays that are open to the community. Folks just flood in there,” she said.
“Without him, children would have nowhere to go before school or after school. He is just a kindhearted person," she said. “I see a lot of happy kids down there.”
Stickling stopped by, introduced herself and donated a few craft kids for children. Stratford, she said, is warm and welcoming. “He’s just a lovely man,” she said.
He is there to welcome, encourage and pray for his customers and visitors. Prayer is a major facet of the bright, colorful environment with little chairs and tables for coloring or drawing, photos of regular visitors on the walls, prayer lists and kids' art projects adorning the walls. What often is referred to as “penny candy” for sale adds to the rainbows of colors.
Stratford is glad to talk about the candy, ice cream, soda and other items he sells. But he isn't fond of talking about himself. He’d rather discuss the children who visit, those who support his ministry and how Jesus touches their lives.
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Kenny Bailey, of Eldridge, volunteers to talk about Stratford. The two met when Bailey was visiting a Quad-City auto-repair facility. Several years ago, Bailey stopped in to find out about Stratford’s store and ministry.
“I’ve called this place a ministry disguised as a candy store,” Bailey said. “He’s feeding their souls, their hearts, their spirits,”
Among Stratford’s other supporters are Hank Hawkins, Marty Hessling, Paul Hein and Michelle Ricci. “They help me, and I help them,” Stratford said.
Stratford's humility made him a little skeptical about his nomination. “I personally am not out for any kind of recognition,” he said. “Other people are so much a part of this store,” said Stratford, who does not advertise.
Hank Hawkins, of Davenport, calls Stratford “My brother from another mother.”
“Michael is incredibly in tune with the people around here. He’s got a passion for the people he serves," Bailey said. “When Michael says we need to pray, we need to pray."
Stratford has run the store since 2006. “I love the Lord,” he said. “This store was started to promote God to young children.”
“Every person who walks in this door, it’s not an accident,” Stratford said. “I love every single person that comes in the door.”
The shop is across the street from Monroe Elementary School. “This is a depressed area in many ways,” Stratford said.
“This place is a lighthouse to the West End,” Hawkins said.
Food giveaways and clothing giveaways are part of the Sugar Shack's neighborly sweetness. On Saturdays, there’s a meal at noon. A recent Thanksgiving dinner drew 92 people.
Stratford says the community formed in and around the store is a “quilt of people who come together.”
All kinds of people of all ages come in, he said. “They need someone they know who cares about them,” he said. “The person that’s downtrodden – they know they can come here.”
On the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, kids were at the store, painting and “learning about the Lord,” Stratford said.
“Every day is different,” Stratford said. “Every day, something good happens. I can’t even begin to explain all the good things that happen here.”