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Brewing up careers

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Plymouth Grounds Coffee Shop in Des Moines enables students with special needs to use their academic knowledge in a work setting. It ensures they are ready for careers once they finish school.

If it were up to Melinda Collins, all of her students would leave school ready to pursue a career or college. Thankfully for her students, it is up to Collins.

Collins, a special education teacher at Des Moines’ Ruby Van Meter, had an idea a few years back to give her students real-life work experience. It evolved into Plymouth Grounds, a full-scale coffee shop located in a tony part of Des Moines.

Collins said making the shop come to fruition involved vision, determination, a bit of courage and a whole lot of luck.

“The coffee shop opened as a private venture at my church, but closed because it wasn’t viable,” Collins said.

Viable, that is, as a for-profit organization. A nonprofit? You bet.

“I saw this wonderful shop closed up, and finally got my courage to propose my idea of making it a business-school venture with the church,” she said.

To her relief (and a bit of surprise), the church, Plymouth Congregational, said yes and even provided $5,000 in start-up money. Now in its second year, Plymouth Grounds – in which the slogan reads “We’re brewing more than just coffee” – is operating in the black.

Lattes are a particularly popular selection from the menu at Plymouth Grounds. Here, students Alexandra Boucher and Chris Cortez whip up some drinks for customers.

There’s a catch to that, however: The students aren’t paid during the school year since it is considered school work. The coffee shop runs through the summer months, as well, but since school isn’t in session, Collins feels obligated to pay the workers.

Anywhere from three to four students ages 18 to 21 serve up coffee, lattes, and baked goods to customers Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to noon. (Students head back to classes at noon.)

With the oversight of Collins, an associate, church volunteer, and church chef, students literally run the operation, from morning setup to noon-time closure. In that time, students will serve, bus, bake, wash dishes, run the cashier, and chat up regular customers. They also launder their uniforms and dish towels.

“What is nice is that they have had many years of academic training,” Collins said. “The coffee shop gives them an opportunity to apply those academic skills in a work setting. They are working with money and the cash register – and there’s lots of reading when it comes to the recipes.”

Initially, Collins would pair students’ skills with what she thought would be appropriate jobs – something she immediately realized was wrong.

“I’m guilty of assuming students cannot go beyond a certain level,” she said. “In the first year, I selected high-functioning students for running the operation, and chose a student who needed more supports who I thought could clean tables and mop the floor. Boy, was I wrong. By the end of the semester, he was doing everything, including making lattes.

“That taught me that I need high expectations for all students.”

Throughout the semester, Collins progress monitored the students’ essential work skills.

“If something isn’t working right, then we model, practice, and try again,” she said.

Plymouth Grounds coffee shop student workers.
Three or four students each semester work at Plymouth Grounds Coffee Shop. This spring’s crew: In back, from left, Chris Cortez, Alexandra Boucher, and Jordan Charter. In front, Jenny Wetzel.

The efforts pay off. Of the 14 students who have rotated through the semester-long program, seven are competitively employed, another five are still in school, and one works in a family business. Only one is choosing not to work at this time.

The students need lots of supervision at the beginning of the semester.

“But toward the end of the semester, students are putting in orders for the coffee, communicating with the chef when we’re running low on pastries,” Collins said. “They count the money and balance it.”

They have even learned to deal with a stress which is the exclusive domain of restaurant owners: a visit from the health department.

“When he walked in, we were initially, ‘oh, no, what are you going to do to us?’” Collins said. “But we ended up having the highest possible score from the health department right after the surprise visit.”

Tips are accepted at the shop, and spent on the students at the end of the semester.

“At the end of the semester, we take a day with the volunteers and go out for a nice lunch at a restaurant with menus,” Collins said. “When I first asked them where they wanted to go for lunch, the students suggested places like Burger King. So I decided on Noah’s Ark, where there are table cloths, silverware, cloth napkins, a waiter and a menu they had to read.

“One young man – you could tell he had never been in that kind of restaurant – he ordered spaghetti and was asked what kind of salad he wanted. He said, ‘Well, I didn’t order salad,’ but he found out it came with the spaghetti.

“Anything left over after dinner, we go shopping,” which amounted to $50 per student.

In its two years, the coffee shop already has built a steady staple of customers.

“It’s a nice work space, and I just love supporting it,” said Kristen Hall, a professional mediator, who drops by a couple times a week. “The kids are so happy, so eager to work here and take care of customers. I try to have meetings here when I can.”

But even more important, the students love it.

Nineteen-year-old Alexandra Boucher, who wants to someday work in retail, said she looks forward to work.

“The people are great, and I’ve met lots of new friends,” she said. “It is my happy place. Making lattes is my favorite. It is fun adding the different flavors, then the foam and adding the cinnamon topping.”

Jordan Charter, 21, favors the cash register.

“I like handling money,” she said. “I like using my math.”

That’s music to Collins’ ears.

“I love watching these students grow,” she said. “What more can we do than to ensure these kids become happy, productive members of our society?”

Postscript: Since the visit, Alexandra Boucher landed a paid job at Marshall’s, and Chris Cortez is working for UPS.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on February 17, 2018 at 9:11pm.