By Kristi K. Higgins, Staff Writer
Mom, son plan to open coffee shop that will employ workers with disabilities
CHESTERFIELD — Harrowgate Elementary School Special Education Teacher Keri Lee and her son Collin Lee, who is a 2018 Matoaca High School graduate, are working on a special project together: a unique coffee shop.
Through Keri’s work providing instruction in academic subjects to students with disabilities and helping them to improve their social skills, encourage independence and develop skills in self-advocating inspired her to create The Thrive Foundation Inc.
The foundation was founded to raise money for a coffee shop that will employ individuals with intellectual disabilities.
She explained, “Our coffee shop will be a community coffee shop. We will seek to employ a manager and eight to ten employees to start. We will serve customers who desire a quick stop on the way to work, as well as customers who would like to linger over their favorite drink, work for a bit, meet up with friends, or conduct business meetings.”
She added, “I was inspired by working with students and learning that they all have strengths and talents, regardless of any disability.
“I was also appalled to learn that less than one out of every two working age adults with intellectual disabilities is in the labor force and that the unemployment rate for adults with intellectual disabilities is more than twice as high as those without disabilities,” she said.
Collin shared, “The name of the coffee shop will be Thrive Coffee. We are currently working to secure our location and would like the shop to be located in the Midlothian area, either in the West Hull Street part of Midlothian or the Town of Midlothian, off Route 60.”
Keri added, “The coffee shop will be operated in a nonprofit model. This means that we will not have any shareholders profiting off of the operations of the coffee shop, which allows us to directly invest all money back into our mission.
“We have an amazing founding Board of Directors that is comprised of four influential community members and myself,” she said. “These community members range from teachers, to local nonprofit experts, to private sector specialists, and more.
“We are very excited about announcing our board in just a few weeks,” she shared.
When asked if any one life experience influenced her coffee shop mission, Keri answered, “When I worked with high school students in a special education program, one of my first experiences in that department was being warmly greeted by a student who walked up to me, shook my hand, introduced himself and asked my name.
“This welcome happened before a single department employee approached me. He put me at ease and made me feel welcome, which is what our customers can expect when they visit Thrive Coffee,” she said with great confidence.
“I immediately saw both the talents and skills these individuals have to offer, as well as the need for meaningful jobs and training for these students as they exit high school. Some families truly do not see employment as a viable option for their children post-graduation,” added Keri.
Keri is a true believer that making connections with students is critical to developing relationships with them.
“When I began developing relationships with these students, I was able to see the unique talents that each one possesses. I believe that in a supportive environment, all individuals have the ability to learn and thrive,” she said.
When asked if either of them have ever worked in a coffee shop before, Collin responded, “We have not worked in a coffee shop previously, though when my mom worked in a local high school, she worked with students in preparing a weekly coffee cart that sold hot beverages and pastries to staff at the school.”
Keri added, “We are partnering with Blanchard’s Coffee, who will help with the training for our managers and employees in all facets of preparing the highest quality coffee beverages.”
Are mother and son coffee drinkers?
Keri shared, “Collin’s favorite drink is a macchiato and mine is a latte. Our favorite blend is Handshake roasted locally by Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co.”
“In addition to coffee, we will be proudly offering a selection of locally baked pastries in addition to other similar options. We will also have merchandise for purchase within the store so that our customers can show their support around the community,” Collin pointed out.
Collin is a student at the University of Miami and works as a Venture Consultant at their entrepreneurship center: The Launch Pad.
“With The Launch Pad … so much of my time is dedicated to helping people in the Miami community start, run, and grow their businesses. This is a lot of fun for me, and I am extremely excited to be making this happen in a nonprofit format,” he said.
“I love to be giving back to the community that I grew up in, and I believe that the fantastic start-up ecosystem that Richmond offers is conducive to the success of a project like this one,” he added.
How much money needs to be raised?
“We are looking at initially raising $20,000, which will allow us to secure our lease, make major equipment purchases, and begin hiring employees,” Keri said. “Thanks to the support that we have received, we are about halfway to our goal. However, we still have a lot of work to do. We are asking anyone who may be interested in making a contribution to visit LearnWithCoffee.org to get more information.
“We desire to reach our financial goal by August 15,” she added. “This will allow us enough time to outfit our shop, train employees and work toward opening our shop.”
Collin added, “We hope to have a soft launch in December with an official opening in January 2020. We are actively working to secure a location so that we can begin the customization of our space.”
With great passion, Keri added, “When individuals buy their coffee from us, they can expect an excellent product, and they will be supporting our mission by giving our employees the opportunity to develop their skills and connect with the community.
“We are more than just a cup of coffee; I believe that once customers walk through the door they will be pleasantly surprised at the overall positive experience they have and will be planning their next stop in,” Keri stated with confidence.
When asked how the community has responded, Keri shared, “Overwhelmingly supportive! We have had positive feedback from the community, interest from future job applicants, and support from professionals interested in corporate sponsorships.”
According to Keri, local businesses’ involvement with Thrive Coffee is key to their success.
She said, “We are currently looking for corporate sponsors who are interested in making contributions to The Thrive Foundation in order to ensure our success. This can be anything from monetary donations to supplies, or even real estate.
“We are grateful for every contribution that our community sponsors make, and are dedicated to ensuring that they get the recognition and support that they deserve for the contributions that they make,” Keri said.
Collin shared, “We will be launching an online store where our supporters can purchase merchandise such as t-shirts, coffee mugs, stickers and more in the next 1-2 weeks. We encourage all of the readers to visit shop.thriverva.org and support us through a merchandise purchase.”
Keri added, “I would love to give a shout out to Collin for the amazing motivation and drive that he has infused into making my years-long dream into a reality.
“Also, to my husband, Wayne, and my daughters Erin and Gracie for their support and interest in helping train our employees and work in the shop.”
If you are interested in supporting this venture, visit ThriveRVA.org, Facebook.com/ThriveRichmond, and Twitter@thriverva for information, to make a donation or become a sponsor.
Kristi K. Higgins can be reached at 804-722-5162 or email@example.com.