PHILADELPHIA — As Brooke Goodspeed watches other parents go out and enjoy public spaces with their children, her heart breaks. She knows, she said, that if she did the same thing with her son she’d be stared at, whispered about, sometimes even made so uncomfortable that she’d choose to leave.

Inspired by her 8-year-old, Oliver, who has autism and Down syndrome, Goodspeed recently opened a Narberth coffee shop dedicated to accepting everyone, including people with special needs.

“I wanted to build a place where we could all go together,” she said as she sat in the middle of the cafe on a bustling weekday morning. “People feel comfortable coming here.”

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Goodspeed, 41, of a Wynnewood, and a modest team opened GET cafe — named after her nonprofit, Great Expectations Together — on Valentine’s Day. Not only do their profits go toward camps, classes and other support for people with special needs (and their parents), she said, but they also employ 16 people with various disabilities.

Nationally, about 36 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 77 percent of people without disabilities, according to the 2018 Annual Report on People with Disabilities in America. If they are employed, national and state laws (including in Pennsylvania) allow for employees with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage — sometimes as little as $1 an hour.

Goodspeed has heard even worse stories. Some of GET cafe’s employees have held jobs in the past, she said, but were never once paid for their work.

Here, she said, they’re paid $10 an hour.

To Goodspeed, paying employees a fair wage is as important as teaching them life skills.

“It’s a lot more than just learning how to do a job,” she said.

Yes, volunteers train employees 1-on-1 in every aspect of the operation, from making lattes, smoothies and avocado toast to sweeping the floors and cleaning the bathroom. But workers also learn problem-solving skills. They learn how to call in sick, she said, and request time off for a vacation. They gain experience interacting with customers, greeting them and asking about their day.

It’s a common misconception, Goodspeed said, that people with autism and other disabilities don’t want to interact with people. In fact, they love human connection, even though they may not be as skilled socially as their peers.

Isabel Cohen, 21, who has autism, loves that part of the job so much that she travels an hour by car and train from Jenkintown for her shifts at GET cafe. After being bullied in middle school, Cohen said she especially appreciates having a place where she can go and be accepted, just as she is, without judgment.

The most rewarding part of this endeavor, Goodspeed said, has been seeing employees like Cohen grow and become comfortable in this space.

“The easiest part of this place has been the employees,” she said. “I’ve cried a lot, just seeing them happy, just knowing that if we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be a place for them to go.”

For many, the cafe is their happy place, said general manager Victoria Goins.

“There aren’t a lot of workplaces where employees come in and they’re so happy, so excited,” Goins said. “It’s an opportunity for growth and independence for these wonderful young people who just want to be a part of this community.”

Between 2015 and 2017, Great Expectations Together worked out of a smaller space around the corner. As they looked to move, board member Vicki Peetros said she began sending Goodspeed news stories about cafes across the country that employed people with disabilities. Peetros said she asked Goodspeed: What if we brought something like this to Narberth?

At the same time, the 4,300 borough residents were without a downtown coffee shop, said Mayor Andrea Deutsch. After raising about $200,000, Goodspeed said, GET cafe moved into the storefront on the 200 block of Haverford Avenue.

The coffee shop exceeded expectations, perfectly fitting in with the compassionate, socially conscious community, Deutsch said.

“They’ve been such a wonderful addition to our downtown,” the mayor said. “You can have your coffee and do good in the world.”

The cafe now averages 100 customers a day, Goodspeed said, and on a given weekday, it’s full of customers working on laptops or having quiet conversations with each other. Signs and decorations around the store emanate love and acceptance.

“You are au-some,” reads a large wooden four-leaf clover.

Nearby, “Come as you are” is etched on a white canvas behind the counter.

In the back, next to a quiet meeting space, Goodspeed and her crew are building a sensory room, which can help stimulate or calm anyone’s senses but particularly helps people with autism.

She said she hopes one day there can be a cafe like this in every town, to empower people with disabilities and to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with being a parent of a child with special needs.

“You need hope as a parent.”

© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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