One of the area’s newest businesses is located inside a school in the Mehlville School District. The Eagle’s Nest Café is a coffee, soda and shack shop open twice a week at Washington Middle School. And it’s completely run by students with learning disabilities.
Through a grant, three teachers and 20 students are running a café in the school that teaches the students life skills they need for the future.
The students learn fine motor skills in making and pouring coffee, math skills in how to count change, and social skills by exposing them to students and teachers in the rest of the school. They also learn proper sanitation and clean the shop after it closes.
Most of the students have moderate to severe intellectual disabilities such as down syndrome, autism or orthopedic disabilities and cerebral palsy.
The project started last year, when teachers Karen Francis, Carla Coats and Special School District paraprofessional Liz Rauls applied for a grant with Donors Choose, a charity website where anyone can donate to a specific project.
“We received full funding in May, and we knew we were a go,” Rauls said.
The shop opened after Labor Day and has been a success.
“The first day was chaos,” Francis said. “But we’ve made so much improvement over the last three weeks.”
The students use the first two class periods of the day to work in the café, reading and doing class work when there is downtime.
“We have some kids that really, really look forward to the coffee shop,” Rauls said. “We have one young man, on Wednesdays, he’ll say ‘two more days, only two more days.’ He’s keeping track and is aware of when he gets to work again.”
The kids manage a cart and with the supervision of a teacher and travel from room to room asking if teachers would like coffee. If so, they ask if the teachers would like cream and sugar.
Politeness is unmatched by Raul Lopez, one of the students in the café. As his classmate pushes the cart down the hallway, he guides it and is the first to volunteer to go into a classroom to ask if the teacher wants coffee.
“I’m ready!” he said. Even when the customer does not want anything to drink, Raul exits the room with a, “Thank you very much” and then, “Ok, what’s next?”
While pushing the cart, Morgan Borghi said her favorite part of the café was the snacks. They make her hungry, but she said she likes how happy they make some people.
The kids take turns going out on the cart, while others stay behind to man the café, because teachers also come in on their breaks.
“Often these kids aren’t familiar with the other teachers and students, they don’t normally interact with the gifted teacher or a normal classroom teacher,” Coats said. “They now have the ability to go through the whole building. Now they know the staff and the staff knows the kids.”
The café sells hot chocolate, tea, coffee and soda for 50 cents and have recently added snacks.
The grant paid for the coffee pots, and donations from staff and local businesses kicked off the shop. Glatfelter donated reusable mugs that teachers can buy for $5, with refills only costing 25 cents and Starbucks gave the kids their first pound of coffee.
“The staff loves it,” Coats said. “We’re open twice a week and they say they wished we were open everyday.”
The teachers modeled the program after opened a shop to teach job skills.
“A lot of the times, these kids with disabilities don’t have job prospects,” Rauls said.
Outside the café, their curriculum includes community-based instruction, where they take field trips to places such as grocery stores and nursing homes to learn about daily tasks and potential jobs.
“We don’t know their future but we want to give them the skills they need like any other child,” Rauls said.
Parents have to pay for the outside instruction, and Francis would like to see the money from the shop go toward paying for the trips instead.
Aside from teaching money skills, the repetition of doing certain tasks often will help them create routines later in life.
“They’ve done much better than what we could have expected,” Francis said. “At first, they were timid, but now they’re jumping in there and serving.”
Coats, Francis and Rauls would like to see the café expand and be open every morning during the week. They’d also like to make it available to students during lunchtime by serving nachos and smoothies instead of coffee.