Coffee shop serves up employment opportunities for autistic young adults

Kindness Cafe on main employees gather for a group photo

In 2021, public school teacher, Chrissy Rice, saw a segment on the Today Show about a coffee shop about an hour south of her in Manasquan, NJ, serving up much more than just a morning pick-me-up to its patrons. It was providing hands-on training and employment to teens and adults with special needs. So inspired, she sprang into action to bring the same opportunities to those in her school district.  

Before the episode wrapped, the English as a Second Language teacher was on the phone with her colleagues at Manasquan High School’s Center for Learning and Independence (CLI). Within a year, September 12, 2022, to be exact, Chrissy and her colleagues proudly opened the Kindness Café on Main, an inclusive workplace for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“We opened on a shoestring budget funded by yours truly,” Rice said. “During the 2022-2023 school year, CLI student-employees ran the cafe as part of their on-the-job training. Fast forward to the Spring of 2023. I was introduced to Fran Hines, a trustee of Belmar First Aid Squad. He and a few other trustees had the opportunity to grant money to local charities and nonprofits in the area. Thankfully, they chose the Kindness Cafe!” 

Now in its second school year of operations, the Kindness Café functions as a pop-up shop inside a nearby restaurant, Main Street Kitchen, on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday mornings. Sundays are staffed by new hires and a “Kindness Crew” (volunteers who support employees), while Mondays and Wednesdays are staffed by student-employees, teachers and job coaches affiliated with Manasquan High School and Point Pleasant High School. Rice says it is a microcosm of the tight-knit, inclusive community in which she works and lives.  

One thing’s for sure, the possibilities are endless.

“Starting the cafe, nurturing it, and seeing it flourish has been extremely rewarding,” the teacher-turned-coffee shop operator added. "The community has welcomed us with a resounding ‘yes!’ There are long-term goals for the Kindness Café, but for now we are honing and polishing this little non-profit. One thing’s for sure, the possibilities are endless.” 

Warren wearing an apron while working at Kindness Cafe on Main

If you visit on a Sunday, you may have the privilege of being served by Warren W., profiled by Autism Speaks in 2021 after he was crowned Homecoming King by his classmates at Wall High School. Aside working at the Kindness Café, Warren, 19, works two mornings a week at a local grocery store and another two at a pet supply store, stocking shelves and helping customers on the sales floor.  

With just one in five people with disabilities, including those with autism, being employed, despite having the skillset and desire to work, his mom, Kristyna, said she’s thankful for her son’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) at the high school because it provides him with various opportunities to explore the employment landscape and be better prepared for the future.  

“Warren really enjoys working because it provides him with a sense of accomplishment. It makes my heart smile to see him and other autistic teens getting an opportunity to work meaningful jobs like the Kindness Café among others,” Kristyna said, noting her son will be transitioning out of his HS work program in about a year and a half. “It’s important he gets to feel that sense of responsibility and see what it’s like to work various positions during his shifts so that he can find the jobs that best suit his skillset. We will continue doing all we can to prepare him for life after school. It’s a daunting concept, but knowing we have resources from Autism Speaks to help guide us through it all is comforting.” 

If you or a loved one is preparing for the transition out of school-based services to employment, like Warren, the following resources from Autism Speaks were designed to help in your journey: 

If you are an employer or inspiring employer, you too can enroll in our WIN program to help welcome employees with autism and related conditions and benefit from an inclusive workplace like Kindness Café. Learn how to get started today

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