Coffee Shop Helping Kids With Special Needs Learn Life Skills
POQUOSON, Va. — At the Cool Beans Cafe, a dollar buys a teacher or school staff member a freshly made cup of hot coffee, tea or cocoa — and gets it delivered to their door.
That dollar also has a big benefit for the seventh-grade students with special needs who run the cafe at Poquoson Middle School. They get experience with job skills and social interactions outside a typical classroom environment.
“They really get a lot out of this,” said Heather Hopkins, the teacher who started the cafe and helps run it.
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When the cafe started, Hopkins was hands-on helping the students learn the job. Now, she floats around, offering occasional instructions.
“They can do this,” she said recently. “It was kind of a sad day when they didn’t need me anymore,” she said with a laugh.
The five students who run the cafe all have a specific job.
Teachers order online in advance, and Jake Mann, the supply manager, looks for the letters that identify the drink they want. He takes the proper K-Cup for a Keurig machine and puts it on a tray with a paper coffee cup, lid and drink sleeve with the full order on it.
Braden Jobst, the barista, brews the coffee in one of the shop’s two Keurigs, often juggling multiple orders at a time. Alex Sarber, the barista assistant, adds the creamer, sugar, honey or whatever add-in the customer wants. The creamers are often seasonal, such as candy cane and peppermint flavors during the winter.
The finished drinks are dropped off to a cart piloted by delivery driver J.J. Shibuya, who likes to go, “beep, beep, beep,” when he backs up, mimicking the sound a truck would make. Jasmine Baker, the cashier, goes on the deliveries with J.J. and collects money and tips — cash and candy — from the customers. She also keeps track of the punch cards some customers have purchased, which gives them 11 drinks for $10.
Hopkins started the coffee shop program this school year with a $1,600 grant from the Virginia Department of Education. The grant is focused on giving students an opportunity to practice self-determined behavior and independence.
One of Hopkins’ main goals is to prepare the students for life after school. The students had to apply to work in the shop, and they change jobs every month and have to reapply again. Next year, she wants to introduce concepts such as wages and paying rent to make the connection between doing a job and how a person lives.
Even though the shop runs like a business, there’s plenty of opportunity to goof off.
Jake, who loves to be in pictures, paused frequently to pose for photos and to admire the pictures on the wall depicting the shop employees. He also talked to the teachers about how he didn’t like the pose he had to do for picture day.
As Alex added cream and sugar to a drink, he and Hopkins bantered about the customer being finicky and having a complicated order that he didn’t want to mess up. From his experience at the cafe, he said he’s started to enjoy helping his mom make coffee at home.
For a coffee with four sugars, Hopkins jokingly told Braden to stick his pinky in it to make it extra sweet — he knew better than to follow that instruction, though.
The students take pride in the work and have showed off their operation at a school board meeting and at a recent expo of instructional programs at Poquoson schools.
Along with the positive experience of running the shop, the business supports some fun activities for the students. While the coffee purchases go to buying supplies, the tips pay for field trips. This year, the students took a trip to the movies to practice theater etiquette and also went to Chick-Fil-A to work on social skills at a restaurant.
After the main service rush, the staff made and delivered their last cup of coffee. They knew to wait to make this order because the cafeteria monitor who would be drinking it didn’t come in to work until later in the morning.
After that final cup was sent out, the students clocked out and put their aprons away in work lockers before sitting in their desks, unwinding after another successful service.
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