The Nest Coffee House, Deep River CT (Credit: CT Examiner/Werth)

Disability-friendly Coffee House Opens in Deep River

DEEP RIVER — The Nest Coffee House opened its doors May 7 on Deep River’s Main Street with a staff comprised almost entirely of people with disabilities.

“90 percent of our staff have a diagnosed disability,” said Jane Moen, the executive director of A Little Compassion, a nonprofit that strives to change the lives of young adults with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities for the better. “We have a number of folks with autism, developmental delays, anxiety and depression.” Moen also manages The Nest.

The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities was 8 percent in 2018 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than double the unemployment rate for people without disabilities. This does not include the 8 out of 10 adults with disabilities that are not considered part of the workforce.

“The number one predictor of success for a disabled adult is having a job in high school,” Moen said. “The goal is not to hire these kids forever. It is meant to build their confidence, have success at their first job and then go out there and do something bigger and better because they’re really great kids.”

Moen knows how big a difference a job can make for a teenager with disabilities firsthand, her second daughter – Kaylee – has autism.

Kaylee is now a shift lead at The Nest, but her first job was at a bakery called Great Harvest. Unlike school and other social settings where Kaylee felt out of place or lonely, at Great Harvest she felt confident, successful and happy.

“She loved working at the bakery, she was their favorite employee and our happy kid again when she was there,” Moen said.

After the bakery closed, Kaylee struggled to find another job that made her happy, said Moen. None of her new employers took the time to see her good qualities and utilize her strengths. It was through this process that Moen realized how special and unique the environment had been at Great Harvest.

To truly make The Nest a workplace where young adults with disabilities like Kaylee can succeed, Moen re-thought not only the training process, but the work environment as well. The entire space was renovated into a sensory-friendly environment.

“When we took occupancy in February, the walls were pink-and-brown stripes with polka dots with many bright fluorescent lights,” Moen said.

Today the walls are painted a soft yellow with detailed decorations of trees, birds and nests. The lights have all been replaced, a basket of fidgets is available for all patrons, the staff are warned about the loud noise of the espresso machine and a section of the shop is designated a quiet room and does not have a sound system.The furniture, which includes everything from sofas to wooden chairs, came from Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, volunteer donations and even the side of the road.

“This whole place really came together because of volunteers,” Moen said.

To honor and thank all of these volunteers and the donors who have made the project possible, an entire wall is dedicated to the Tree of Thanks, as Moen calls it. Stephen Little, a resident of Cincinnati and the primary donor, and others, will have a nest, bird or leaf painted on the tree with their name on it.

Although the shop currently relies on donations, the goal is to be self-sustaining within a year, Moen said, a difficult task given the many accommodations made for their workers.

“The challenge for us is because coffee shops have a difficult time making it anyway, and our labor costs are crazy,” Moen said. “Right now we are overstaffed, but I don’t want anybody to ever go home from a shift feeling like it was awful. We want them to feel good about being here.”

None of the staff with disabilities have shifts longer than six hours and they are able to take a break whenever they need it. Moen and the assistant managers have taken extra time and care to train every employee, to interest them in some aspect of the operation, and to get to know them, so that they can schedule shifts so the employees will complement each other.

In addition to 15 paid employees, The Nest has eight student interns from high school special education programs in the surrounding towns. Interns work two-hour shifts with a job coach during the school day. These internships give high school students a first taste of working and an opportunity outside of school to learn skills that will help them with a future career.

“I love seeing how happy they are when they’re here,” Moen said. “Most of them when they walk in the door are so excited to be a part of this place.”

Unlike a traditional coffee shop, any profit will be returned to support programs run by A Little Compassion, including events for high schoolers and 18 to 20+ groups. These events, called Nest Gatherings, give young adults with disabilities a place to go and have fun on Friday and Saturday evenings when other people their age are going out to bars and parties.

“We have trivia nights, board game nights, anime nights, documentary nights. We try to provide activities for the unique interests that young adults who see the world differently have,” Moen said.

Unlike the places and events where Moen once brought her daughter Kailey to as a teenager, Nest Gatherings are hosted in a normal place, a coffee shop.

“We went to great programs at Yale but they had a very clinical feel,” Moen said. “We think it should feel like you’re part of your community, you shouldn’t have to go somewhere else to feel part of your community.”

Moen said she wants everyone to reform their impression of young adults with disabilities. She wants people to start seeing them as they are, and that they can be productive and successful in the workplace.

“We have one student that gets pretty loud, animated and jumps when he gets excited. He does a few whoops once in a while, but what’s the problem with that?” Moen said. “The community needs to see them whether they are being loud or making a mistake or not.”

In addition to coffee, espresso and tea, The Nest sells ice cream, pastries and they are expanding into breakfast sandwiches.

The official launch party will be held on Saturday, June 8.

A Little Compassion has a GoFundME still open for The Nest under the tagline Coffee and Compassion at the Nest. All donations up to $20,000 will be matched by Stephen Little.

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