When Keri Lee worked at Clover Hill High School, she watched students with disabilities thrive as they staffed a coffee shop on Fridays, running everything from the cash register to drink service.
Lee, who teaches special education for Chesterfield County Public Schools, knew the pop-up store was important, not just for building confidence but for building the future.
About one in 10 students at the Midlothian school has a disability, according to the state, and federal data show people with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed (6.3%) as people without a disability (3.3%).
“They have very distinct preferences and they all have talent and they all have skills,” Lee said of people with disabilities. “They want a place to fit in and work.”
By next year, theyʼll find one in Thrive, a coffee shop Lee and her son, Collin, are working to open in Midlothian, at a location to be finalized.
“My idea is to create an experience that makes you want to come back,” Lee said. “We can be a destination, but I hope to have a community feel and have customers who come back because they support our mission and enjoy the experience.”
A similar coffee shop in North Carolina opened in 2016 and was initially run by 19 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The store, now Bitty & Beauʼs Coffee, went viral; in 2017, founder Amy Wright was named CNNʼs Hero of the Year.
Maxʼs Positive Vibe Café in the Stratford Hills Shopping Center has a similar mission, training and employing people with disabilities in food services.
The coffee shop is a passion project for Lee and her son, who graduated from Matoaca High School in Chesterfield in 2018 and now attends the University of Miami in Florida, studying entrepreneurship and marketing.
“Weʼre excited at the prospect of getting going,” Collin Lee said.
The shop will have coffee, other hot beverages and pastries, but its most important ingredient will be the experience, Keri Lee said.
“I hope to accomplish community acceptance,” she said. Nationally, thereʼs work to do.
“They often face some of the most difficult challenges with post-school employment,” said LaRon A. Scott, a special education professor at Virginia Commonwealth Universityʼs School of Education. “These types of opportunities offer a way for students to garner skills and knowledge and vocational experience that we know that lead to competitive employment for students with disabilities.”
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities ticked down recently from 7% in May 2018 to 6.3% last month.
Lee hopes to lower the rate in the Richmond area. The nonprofit is currently raising money to help offset the startup costs. More information can be found at thriverva.org.
“Itʼs a population thatʼs traditionally faced employment difficulties,” Lee said. “Weʼre looking to change that. We want to get them a place to thrive.”
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Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he’s worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.