Cafe job teaches students how to grind

New cafe at Tulare County Office of Education prepares special-needs students for real-world work grinds with coffee-making, baking skills

VISALIA – Students with special needs are learning community-based skills by becoming baristas and bakers in a new cafe that serves staff at the Tulare County Office of Education.

Students from two of the 14 community based instruction classrooms (CBIC) in Tulare County practiced  preparing baked goods and coffee for dozens of customers—who are also staff members—at the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE) building on Mooney Boulevard. The cafe, called Redwood Center Cafe, is located in the building’s redwood conference center, where a picket fence defines the seating area and offers four small tables for customers to enjoy their items.

“One of the primary goals is developing [students’] work skills, and figuring out what work opportunities students would be interested in when they leave our program,” Sarah Hamilton, cafe project manager, said. “This is just a really exciting opportunity for them to learn all kinds of skills.”

These practice sessions took place on Sept. 28 and 29 to prepare students for the real opening of the cafe, which will begin serving customers on Wednesday Oct. 5. The Redwood Center Cafe will offer coffee drinks with a variety of optional flavored syrups and plans to eventually offer espresso drinks as well. According to Hamilton, the cafe plans to expand their menu with teas as well as iced drinks for staff to enjoy in warmer weather.

Some of the baked goods being offered at the cafe include pumpkin chocolate muffins and chocolate chip cookie bars, according to Hamilton. Additionally, the cafe is offering fresh fruit cups and vegetable cups with a side of ranch dressing.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, a group of CBIC students will prepare items, like baked goods, for the cafe in the large kitchen facility on the first floor of the TCOE building. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the cafe is open, a second group of students will serve TCOE staff during the cafe’s operating hours, which are 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

For the time being, the cafe will accept cash-only payments until they receive a machine to accept credit and debit card payments.

The Redwood Center Cafe was inspired by a vision from Tim Hire, the Tulare County superintendent of schools.

“One, probably the most important thing, is operating a little cafe like this provides another opportunity for our students in our community-based instruction classes to develop some life skills, some job training and interaction with our staff,” Hire said.

Hire said the cafe will also show TCOE staff how their work relates to students and creates opportunities for them. It also displays the learning going on in programs, like CBIC, that work directly with students.

“It bridges the gap between our staff, who are here working in an office setting, and [shows them] how their work impacts the classroom and students in education,” Hire said.

Additionally, Hire said the cafe provides a convenience to TCOE staff by allowing them to get a cup of coffee or a muffin right in the office instead of having to make a stop prior to work or leave the building on a break.

According to Hire, the idea for the cafe came about some time in 2020 but TCOE backed off on the decision at the time and it did not come to fruition. The timing for that decision was ultimately good because it was made just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy. Once COVID-19 regulations were lifted and the economy began to open up again, Hire said TCOE revisited the idea of adding a student-staffed cafe in the building.

The special services division with TCOE operates 14 community based instruction classrooms in Tulare County. The CBICs are open to young adults ages 18-22 with special needs, like developmental delays, after they complete their four years of high school. The program strives to teach each student the job and independent living skills they need to reach their highest potential.

“Anything to help increase their independence so they’re able to better take care of themselves when they leave [the program],” Hamilton said. “They’re always going to need a level of support, but we want them to become as independent as they can.”

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