Stepping up to the counter at Breaking Grounds Coffee & Café in Mount Holly, it’s refreshing to be greeted not with eye-rolling boredom of a chain store’s barista, but by the bubbly Kristin Hainey. With a bright-pink bow perched atop her head, she greets customers with a charming, infectious smile, thoughtfully leaving a bit of space at the top of even a black coffee, “so you don’t spill any on you.”
Her sunny personality might be reason enough to visit Breaking Grounds, but Hainey, 23, is also a beneficiary of the coffee shop’s mission to offer employment opportunities to people with developmental disabilities. The cozy café, which opened in December 2017 in the township’s quaint Mill Race Village, is the first project launched by the Zefer Foundation, a nonprofit founded to help shift society’s perception of individuals with developmental disabilities.
Both the organization and the café are run by Brandi Fishman, whose 11-year-old daughter, Zoey, is severely impacted by multiple disabilities. “I believe as parents we’re responsible to cultivate the kind of community that we want for our children,” Fishman explained. “My hope is that I’m making our little area of the world a kinder, more accepting place for Zoey for when she’s out in the community as a teenager and adult.”
That time is crucial for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, who at 21 age out of the federally entitled education system and the range of support services they’re afforded while in school. To the shock of many parents, the waiting list for post-school help can be years-long ( in Pennsylvania alone more than 13,000 are on the list), leaving many at a loss as to how to find and afford these vital services. Securing employment not only helps young adults with disabilities be productive and active in the community, but provides a much-needed income.
“There’s no question that people with developmental disabilities can work in regular jobs and that they make really good employees,” said Stacy Jarett Levitan, executive director of JCHAI (Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence), an organization providing assistance with independent living and vocational support services to those with developmental disabilities. JCHAI has plans to include a training café of its own when it opens a new education center in Radnor.
“There needs to be a sustainable way for people with developmental disabilities to make money to support themselves just like the rest of us. There’s never going to be enough government money,” she said. “Having a job where you’re dealing with the community is great training. All these skills that they’ll learn in our café will be translatable so they can go out and get other jobs in the community.”
Opening a business as interactive as a coffee shop, Fishman explained, offers educational opportunities not only for the employees but also for the public that they serve.
“It’s the social component of the coffee shop that really appealed to me,” she said. “A lot of adults that are differently wired have social issues, whether they’re too outgoing or not outgoing enough, so I thought it would be a great way to address that. It also makes it very clear to our customers what it is we’re trying to do here. There’s no back room or kitchen; there’s nowhere to hide. We’re all out front working together, so it’s a very clear demonstration of what they’re capable of.”
“Many [people with developmental disabilities] are very procedurally oriented; they like to see a step-by-step process. Grinding coffee, packing it in, pushing the buttons, steaming the milk: everything here is steps,” he said. “And cleanup is also a learning experience. Something spills on the floor, an espresso bubbles over, you drop a customer’s latte — things happen, you just have to take care of it.”
The café, which opened last summer as part of the new Kelly Center for Music, Arts and Community, has also provided a learning experience for Wurster. A retired software engineer, he repeatedly stressed that he was not a businessman, which presents its own challenges.
“I’m just a dad,” he said, referring to his 31-year-old daughter, who has multiple disabilities, including autism and bipolar disorder. “I know what my daughter needs and, having advocated for her throughout her life, I think I know what other families’ kids ultimately need. And everybody needs a place to be.”
While three of New Avenue’s 15 staff members are paid, most are still volunteers at this stage. The goal, said Wurster, is to get everyone on the payroll.
The way they are at GET Café in Narberth, where Brooke Goodspeed insists on paying all employees the minimum wage, plus tips. “I believe that employment has to be meaningful, and part of being meaningful is being paid,” said Goodspeed, founder of Great Expectations Together (GET), the organization that launched the café.
“Not everyone with a disability wants to just fold papers and stuff envelopes,” she continued. “Cafés are a great experience for people because they teach basic math and social skills, but there’s also a lot that comes from just being employed: having to call off of shifts and communicate with your employer, say hello and goodbye — so many skills that aren’t cultivated but are necessary for success in the job force.”
Great Expectations Together’s mission is ultimately broader than just running the café; Goodspeed hopes to launch other companies, and eventually to derive an employment model that can be adapted to any number of businesses. Fishman has similar plans for the Zefer Foundation. She’s already launched an art and music studio in Mill Race Village called the Zefer Art Alliance, and dreams of operating a farm and a vocational service in the future.
“I want there to be different opportunities in the community,” Fishman said. “These individuals are capable of so much more than collecting the carts at the supermarket, and I’m hoping to lead by example. I want to inspire other businesses to examine the positions they have available and be open to including adults with [developmental] disabilities.”
Mark Cartier hopes to help launch employees down that road when he and his wife, Stephanie, open No Limits Café in Middletown, N.J., this month. The renovated café dedicates an unusual 50% of its square footage to its kitchen, providing extra space for job training, with a plan to eventually partner with other restaurants to place employees.
“We then create a multiplier effect,” Cartier said. “Now people don’t just go into one restaurant and see this — they go into five, or 10, or 20, and all of a sudden you take a population that has an 80% unemployment rate and you start to really open eyes.”