With Laughter and Coffee

by Claudia Thompson
July 2017

"Where's my love?" Tricia Nagorski asks, as she draws a card to the sound of a fanciful giggle. "Between you and Hartman, I don't stand a chance."

The giggle came from her longtime friend and former special education student, Lauren Moore, over a friendly game of UNO. "I have no luck today," Nagorski laments. "I have no yellow, so I'm going to go with blue." But with one last play, Lauren, 26, who just finished her shift at Bitty & Beau's Coffee, shouts, "UNO!"

Lauren is no novice when it comes to dealing cards. It's part of her job -- the one she calls her favorite out of three jobs, this one because of the "free drinks" at the end of her shift.

She is among the 19 employees with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) at the caf? located on the Rippy Cadillac dealership lot where, as she describes it, she "puts the coffee in cups."

The cards come into play in that, instead of calling a customer's name when an order is ready like some coffee shops, Lauren announces the face of the playing card. It might be: "ace of hearts!" Then the customer holding the ace of hearts exchanges his or her card for the beverage.

Nagorski, a former special-education teacher, has watched Lauren grow from being a student at Laney High School to an assistant in her classroom. Now, as her job coach, Nagorski works with Lauren one day a week at the coffee shop. North Carolina's oldest service to aid the disabled, the Arc, makes her support possible.

Lauren lives with her mother and father and one of them drives her to work.

"Her days are full," Nagorski says. "She does dance and she just had a big recital. She volunteers for the transition program [a county program helping people like herself, between ages 18-21, with life skills and vocations]. It's whatever the supports are needed to make the person successful. So, it doesn't matter what the label is, what the IQ is. It's, 'What does Lauren need to be successful here at work?' They do it beautifully at Bitty & Beau's because they look at the person and ask, 'What can they contribute, what piece of a job can they do?' I look at Grant and they have molded such a beautiful job for him. I have watched him expand his own responsibilities as he has grown."

Grant is Grant Smith, one of Lauren's co-workers. He dances to "Can't Stop the Feeling!" by Justin Timberlake, raises his hands, claps to the beat and disco points in between greeting customers and taking an occasional seat in the chair provided for him.

From Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to autism, disabilities are transformed into abilities. Bitty & Beau's is a place where enthusiasm greets customers at the door, and simple modifications like resting in a chair when fatigued and using playing cards instead of names normalize the experience for both the employee and patron.

"It is not a typical workplace," says Maddie Ashcraft, one of the managers. "Every day there are challenges. The benefits far outweigh the challenges. The challenges present areas of growth, bonds that are formed with each other. A lot of skills are learned in the hard moments; we use them as teaching moments."

The business was founded by Ben and Amy Wright, who, before opening the first coffee shop, were working to facilitate employment placement of individuals with IDD.

"I formed the nonprofit ABLE to Work USA [in January 2015] as basically a data bank of people who were looking for jobs and then employers that were looking to hire somebody with IDD," Amy Wright explains.

It wasn't immediately successful.

"It just felt like I was swimming upstream," she says. "I had tons of people that were looking for jobs but I just didn't have any employers that were looking to hire. I had this data bank of names of people who wanted me to help them find work. The coffee shop was born out of that nonprofit."

Allen Rippy Sr., owner of Rippy Cadillac, first heard of Bitty & Beau's Coffee while paddleboarding along the Intracoastal Waterway in January 2016 with Mike Ashcraft, pastor of Port City Community Church. Ashcraft's daughter, Maddie, is Amy's executive assistant and manages the now-acclaimed coffee shop two days a week.

A traumatic brain injury resulting from surgery delayed Maddie's ability to communicate. It motivated her to work with the disabled as her vocation.

Maddie had told her dad that the newly opened coffee shop at the corner of Kerr and Wrightsville, then just Beau's Coffee, was already so popular the Wrights realized they needed a larger location.

"I stopped paddling and said, 'They just need to come put a coffee shop in my Hummer building, which had been sitting idle," Rippy says. "And two days later, we were sitting down with Ben and Amy Wright. I had never even heard about Beau's, and now my office is in Bitty & Beau's Coffee shop."

He says he and the Wrights both took a leap of faith, which turns out to be one of many next right steps both families say they can attribute only to God.

"Our faith is the cornerstone of our lives and everything we do," Amy says.

The coffee shop's enormous popularity and positive press has propelled the Wrights to open a second location. Among those leading the rallying cry has been former Food Network star turned daytime talk show host Rachael Ray, who remarked on her March 2, 2016, show that she wanted to see a Bitty & Beau's Coffee on "every corner in America."

Ray featured the original Beau's Coffee shop on her show and in December 2016 announced Bitty & Beau's Coffee beans as the "official coffee of the Rachael Ray Show."

"Bitty" Jane Adeline (who turns 8 in August) and Beau (13 in July) recently made the big reveal on Facebook after six weeks of polling the coffee shop's 45,000 Facebook followers. Their parents, they said, will be opening a second location in Charleston, South Carolina, this fall.

"Every town has a population of people with intellectual disabilities who need employment," Amy says.

That is because nearly 80 percent of people with IDD are jobless, statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor state -- a number that doesn't go unnoticed by a dad who is a numbers guy with two children with disabilities.

"Outside of a place like Bitty & Beau's, there is nowhere to get a job," Ben Wright says. "We want to get the culture and society to see these employees differently, and hire them in businesses of all types -- not just coffee shops. If you are visible, do your job, and let people see you working, that is going to move the needle for people with all disabilities."

When Ben Wright left Morgan Stanley and opened Dye Creek Capital four years ago, he hired nine individuals with IDD as hospitality associates who greeted clients and served them a beverage in the historic home the firm occupied before moving downtown.

"They helped keep up the house, cleaning, organizing, copying, filing," Amy Wright says. "They did kitchen prep, from clipping herbs from the garden to share with clients, and making homemade granola to send home with a client."

She says these were life skills they were working on, either with the help of a job coach or with Amy overseeing and making modifications throughout the day.

"At Dye Creek, Ben didn't have a very large flow of customers coming and going, and we thought, 'How can we create this experience where people are interacting with people with IDD and just kind of multiply that?'" Amy says.

They began developing a vision of the future with their two younger children in mind. They were still adjusting to creating as normal a life as possible for their third-born child, Beau, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome, when Bitty was born with the same genetic disorder.

"We have tried to teach our children a lot of things but I think above all else it is to love everyone," Amy says. "It doesn't matter their background, their ethnicity, their abilities."

The coffee shop, founded as a place to offer employment opportunities for people with IDD, became a vehicle to show that love. Love and understanding are forged as customers are served by and interact with people they might not typically encounter in everyday life.

"We established Bitty & Beau's Coffee thinking we were going to solve an unemployment epidemic," Amy says. "It became a platform for how people view people with IDD, and that has become the biggest discovery and has become our mission. It wasn't until the coffee shop started that we realized this is a platform for doing that."

The family has made buttons that say, "Future Bitty and Beau's Employee" to encourage other parents with children who have IDD that there is hope for that child's future.

Peggy Germano knows from experience how much the world needs both this sense of hope and the success of the mission. Her brother, Marty, was born with Down syndrome and only lived to the age of 2.

"In the 1950s," she explains, "there was nothing then available for parents who had children who were Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities."

He died in 1956, on his sister's 10th birthday.

"It's a long time ago, but things have come a long way," she says.

Now with a grandson who has Down syndrome, Germano expresses joy and appreciation for the concept.

"Bitty & Beau's gives these workers meaning to their lives," she says. "I come here to see the smiles on their faces."

Germano is a member of a knitting group -- affectionately called the Knit Knuts -- that meets on Tuesdays at Bitty & Beau's Coffee. Several them are former educators and transplants from different areas of the country.

Bonnie Rosenmeier was born in the Bronx and taught in Brewster, New York.

"We had a close family friend [with IDD]," she reminisces. "Luckily, his family had a lot of money and they owned a local drugstore soda fountain, and he had a job for life. Otherwise, he would have had nothing due to his disability."

Rosenmeier was an educator of children with special needs. She says acquiring life skills, socializing and interacting with different people is just as important for children with IDD as what they learn in school.

"I don't think that our country's educational system has come to a point where we are doing the best that we can," she says. "We have regressed. But Bitty & Beau's Coffee is an example of something that is unheard of and wonderful."

It also has made an impact in the workforce at PPD, the Wilmington-based pharmaceutical contract research organization.

"A few months after Beau's was up and rolling, I got a call from PPD and they said, 'We love what you're doing there and we would like to incorporate people with intellectual developmental disabilities in our workforce,'" Amy says.

It was not a completely new idea to them. At that time, PPD had at least one person with IDD already on staff. They wanted to hire five additional individuals with IDD.

"They said, 'Can you help us?' Which is exactly why I formed the nonprofit, because that was my original hope; I would just kind of be that middleman between people with IDD and businesses that were looking to hire people," Amy says. "I already had a file full of potential employees just here in Wilmington that were looking for jobs, and so the process began."

Amy helped place the five employees and PPD reached out to her again earlier this year with interest in hiring one more.

Matt Dean, 27, is one of the many faces of Bitty & Beau's Coffee. He's a cashier, and the person who often takes customers' orders. He is autistic and, while talking and socializing used to be very challenging for him, he is now gregarious in his interaction with guests.

"You have to go to Carolina Beach," he tells a young woman from Washington, D.C., "to a place called Britt's Donuts and you can get a donut for like a dollar and they haven't changed a thing since like 1970."

She thanks him, not realizing he has just informed her of one of this region's most popular and historical boardwalk mom-and-pop donut shops. She receives a nugget of information that might not have been available from baristas at a corporate coffee shop more concerned with serving the next person in line.

Or at least, that's how Caroline Keeler feels.

"How many times do you go in some place and you get somebody who doesn't want to be there, who certainly doesn't make you feel better for having come in?" she says.

As a physical therapist, she has worked with clients with various issues including IDD, as well as with their parents, in their goal to "recover to a degree to participate in life." Her first visit to Bitty & Beau's Coffee did not disappoint, and even echoed the goal she tries to achieve at work: "Here, everyone is so happy, and there is a pure simplicity about it and it's just a nice interaction," Keeler says.

Pat McCarthy is a retired educator who worked in special education in Maryland and says Bitty & Beau's Coffee is a model program that has had her support from the start.

"Planning, even at the elementary level, we would sit in team meetings with very young children trying to start a program that would lead to the vision of these children having a dignified adulthood," she explains.

Aligning with the Wrights' goal of moving the needle toward the general population's acceptance and understanding of people with IDD, McCarthy adds, "It's not just about what we have to share with them, but what they have to share with us."

One of the most impressive visuals of how expansive the Wrights' mission has become hangs on the wall right behind Matt Dean as he takes orders. A map holds what looks to be at least 1,000 pushpins indicating where a visitor has journeyed from to experience Bitty & Beau's Coffee.

It, too, has become a topic of friendly conversation for Matt.

"Where in the world would you want to go if you could go anywhere?" he asks. The visitor answers, "Big Sky, Montana," and points to the map. Matt replies he wants to go to Hawaii some day and adds, "Did you know I have already been to an island, but have never been in a plane?" The patron looks stumped for a second, until Matt points to the Bahamas, and remarks that he got there "by boat," referring to a cruise ship.

The patron chuckles as Matt hands him a pushpin to mark the place from where he has visited.

While Matt holds a conversation about favorite places, Katie Zeigler shows a guest her pink nails as a manager shares about Katie being selected to take part in the "I am Beautiful Fashion Show" for women with disabilities. Katie is 25, petite with chestnut curls. She wears glasses and a larger-than-life smile, a perfect attribute for someone whose job is to greet guests and bid them a great day when they leave.

Matt, always polite, offers a "thank you so much, thank you all for coming" as someone hands him back a clipboard with receipt.

Tricia Nagorski tells Lauren it's time to go. But she'll be back.

"I probably couldn't even define what [the Wrights] have done for our community just in general, but for the disability community it has been outstanding because you just come for a cup of coffee but you leave with such joy because they have just made it so welcoming," she says. "They have done it right. I can't think of anything they could have done better."

Breaking Down Barriers

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, states, "Despite their ability to occupy a variety of jobs, people with disabilities only account for 19.8 percent of the workforce, have more than double the unemployment rate compared to the general population, and continue to face barriers finding work."

Since 2010, the department's Disability Employment Initiative has awarded grants of more than $123 million to 49 projects in 28 states to improve education, training and employment outcomes of youth and adults with disabilities.

Congress authorized ODEP in 2001 to meet a need for a national policy to ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into the 21st-century workforce.

ODEP identifies 40 million Americans with disabilities, yet the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law prohibiting school and job discrimination against individuals with disabilities, was not signed into law until 1990, under the first Bush presidency.

North Carolina is one of 35 states exploring how to create policies and implement practices and funding to increase competitive pay for workers with disabilities. With the backing of the disability community and other allies, including the North Carolina Parent Teacher Association, the bill to officially designate October as Disability History and Awareness month in the state was signed into law in July 2007.

 


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