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Oasis Cafe Gives Students a Vision of the Future
November 8, 2014
Source: The Leaf-Chronicle, TN
Oasis: Time or experience that is pleasant and restful.
The definition perfectly describes the environment at the new Oasis Cafe, described by organizers as “a little paradise to grab a bite to eat.”
The quaint shop nestled in the heart of Veterans Plaza in Suite 102 gives customers the coffee shop experience, with a robust smell of coffee filling the air and the swish of espresso machines and blenders echoing through the newly renovated space.
But Oasis Cafe is like no other coffee shop in town.
Behind the counter is a staff of … Clarksville-Montgomery County [Tennessee] high school seniors, graduates and adults with disabilities. They have overcome difficult circumstances to proudly be employed and serve customers with a smile.
At Oasis, they receive hands-on training in food and beverage preparation, health department guidelines, customer service skills, time management and other specific developmental skills to prepare them to be competitive in the local job community for paid employment.
“The district’s vision is that all students will be college- or career-ready,” said Souette Quinn, coordinator of the Exceptional Children program at CMCSS. “In our district it means all students – no matter what your challenges are or where you were served in our school.”
CMCSS students with [disabilities] have had opportunities in the past to be placed in food service or hospitality settings, but in the real world work environment, the students were immediately submerged into a fast-paced schedule that was overwhelming, and co-workers didn’t always have time to support the students in the transition from school to work, according to Elise Shelton, director of communications.
Educators and families expressed the need for a “middle training ground” for students – a step between the special education classroom and the real work setting, she said.
Oasis provides that environment and a much-needed commodity for the local community.
“We are meeting the needs of the students,” Quinn said. “We also have hundreds of employees at Veterans Plaza who didn’t have anything accessible for lunchtime. It was an ongoing joke [that] they were in the middle of the desert. We said this can be their Oasis.”
Training is underway as the cafe prepares to open its doors. The cafe will be run by a few CMCSS workers and several students with disabilities. Destiny Smith, special education assistant, will assist students with cashier skills.
Quinwun “Q” Williams, Oasis Cafe supervisor, said the shop will sell hot and cold specialty coffee drinks, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, salads, pastries, wraps, deli sandwiches and soup. They will also have grab-and-go items such as fruit cups, parfaits, chips and soda.
“Working with interns with minor disabilities, I feel privileged. I’m used to working with students who know how to do everything on their own,” Williams said. “It gives me the chance to learn them and what areas they need help in. I’m able to teach them something while they teach me something.”
A great opportunity
Quinton Patterson, Oasis Cafe’s job coach assistant who will train students in food preparation, offers a unique perspective for the [interns with disabilities] he trains.
Patterson himself was a student with disabilities in CMCSS and endured 15 surgeries in 22 years. He is now proud to hold a full-time job helping other [students with disabilities] as they learn practical job skills.
“I started crying when I was offered the job. I worked so hard for this job and to be where I am.,” Patterson said. “I’ve been applying for jobs since 2011, and to get that call and be offered that position, I was so excited and I still am. To have this job is a blessing.”
Patterson, a 2011 West Creek High graduate, said when he graduated there weren’t programs such as this.
“I know what these interns go through,” he said. “Having a disability and overcoming those challenges of not being able to understand and comprehend things very well, I self-advocate for myself and ask ‘Can you explain that again’ or asking for a visual of how something is done, or someone modeling what they want done and me repeating it. ... I understand that.”
Montgomery County government donated space for the cafe in Veterans Plaza. Former County Mayor Carolyn Bowers and current Mayor Jim Durrett both believed in the positive impact the cafe would have.
Quinn said Bowers asked CMCSS if the CMCSS would be interested in staffing a much needed sandwich shop in Veterans Plaza.
“We saw it as a great opportunity, but we needed funding,” Quinn said.
The nonprofit cafe is funded by a Project Search Grant of more than $86,000, a Lowes Community Grant, an IDEA Discretionary Grant of $97,000, and a Transition to Work Vocational Rehab grant of $140,000.
Through their “Heroes” initiative Lowe’s Home Improvement donated $2,500 and 200 hours of manpower to renovate the former CMCSS on-site health clinic into a health department-approved cafe.
Twenty to 25 employees from both Lowe’s Clarksville locations worked tirelessly for three to four weeks to design the cafe, put in new floors, paint, and install mosaics, cabinets and molding. They also donated new appliances and bistro sets to fill the 1,200-square-foot space.
CMCSS operations set up plumbing, electricity and made structural renovations. Other local businesses and vendors offered advice, products and special discounts.
“There was such a belief in this cafe that local coffee businesses have supported us as well,” Quinn said. “When you see other businesses that might be considered competition help because they see what the basis of this is, it touches your heart.”
The owners of Mugsy’s and Lasaters local coffee shops both donated products and gave advice on business models.
Cafe fills void for county workers
Mayor Jim Durrett said having Oasis Cafe in Veterans Plaza has brought a heartfelt and unique experience to hundreds of county employees.
“This new Oasis Cafe will provide a great opportunity for the students to learn valuable skills in a real-world setting, while at the same time filling a void for employees by giving them some convenient food options,” Durrett said.
“It is just a great fit, and I am thrilled that we had the space to be able to allow this new facet of the program to launch.”
All money collected at the cafe goes back into the program. They hope to be able to sustain themselves and staff their employees when grant money runs out.
Oasis Cafe plan to open its doors in the next few weeks and will run on the same schedule as the school system. They plan to have an open house in the near future.
The cafe represents something bigger, said Maurice Howard, director of Project Search, a local program that provides internships for students with disabilities and works-hand-in-hand with Oasis.
Having this new unique cafe breaks down barriers and erases stigmas, he said.
“The biggest part is our community partners together to help give people with disabilities the chance to grow, mature and be productive citizens like everyone else,” Howard said. “The biggest benefit is to see how much our community cares about people with disabilities.”
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