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Local programs foster independence, ready people with developmental differences for employment

Spokes Cafe
Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 22, 2022

MEDINA, Ohio — Fostering independence in people with developmental differences is the goal of many programs and organizations across the country, including right here in Northeast Ohio where numerous programs are dedicated to doing just that. While helping establish independence is the main goal, the result of the programs may help local businesses amid ongoing labor shortages.

At Spokes Cafe in Medina, individuals with developmental differences run the shop—taking orders, making drinks and everything in between.

Spokes Cafe

"It's just a safe environment where they can come in and kind of explore different opportunities," said Rachel Green of Spokes Cafe. "Working the register which is their cash, money counting skills, working our espresso bar, learning how to make everyone’s favorite lattes and coffees...We also have our consumers here who help us come up with ideas for different lattes that we can put out for our drink of the week or a special bakery item so we’re just like a big team here."

Green works with individuals at the shop to understand what skills they need to develop and grow and make them feel confident in their work.

“We give them that confidence and it’s awesome to see someone be like ‘Oh I don’t know how to count money’ but in our 'dayhab' we practice those money counting skills—and doing that month after month, all of a sudden they’re volunteering like ‘oh we’ll count the drawer,'" Green said. "So we give them a comfortable place to be themselves and help build upon themselves.”

Spokes Cafe Justin and Sydney

As Justin worked as the day's barista and Sydney worked the register, Spokes Cafe served cups of joe throughout the morning in an environment full of teamwork and enjoyment. But the fun the employees have each day accompanies important lessons they leave the cafe with as well.

“I’ll get side texts from parents that are like ‘What! I can’t even get my child to mop at home, they’re mopping there and they seem to be loving it,” Green said. "I think they just feel more independent and they're working for that instead of being told, so it’s different and they’re earning money—they take pride, again, in being hard workers.”

That hard work is something Courtney Gebura, the transition coordinator at Cleveland Clinic Children's Lerner School for Autism, believes more businesses could benefit from if they gave individuals with developmental differences more opportunities.

“I think that as a culture and as businesses are looking at who are the individuals that can complete these jobs...and now with the pandemic with us really going off the grid with our thinking and our job descriptions, why aren’t we looking at maybe a diverse population that have the abilities to complete these jobs?" Gebura said.

Abilities gained from programs like the one at Spokes Cafe, and even at Witzi's Raw Granola, a local business started by a mom whose son has autism and had health issues early in life.

Amy Witzigreuter

"The inspiration came from my son, who had numerous health issues when he was a baby," said Amy Witzigreuter, owner of Witzi's Raw Granola. "I learned early on that soaking nuts and grains and seeds made them easier to digest so that's why I really started it."

But as Witzigreuter continued her business, she realized the potential it could have in helping her son Paul with his developmental differences.

“When your kids get older and start approaching a time when they have to leave a school-based program, it’s very concerning about what they’re going to do," Witzigreuter said. “That’s sort of part of what Witzi’s can do is help students with autism practice different job skills that could maybe lead to employment one day.”

Paul Witzigrueter granola job

Witzigreuter has Paul and some of his classmates at the Lerner School for Autism working alongside her, learning skills they can use down the road as they explore work opportunities of their own choosing.

“Maybe they like this work and it leads to a job that they’re really passionate about down the road," Witzigreuter said.

Gruber hopes that more businesses will increase their inclusivity when it comes to employment as it could benefit not just the individuals with developmental differences looking for employment, but the businesses themselves.

“I think that we can look at businesses and try to talk with businesses and coordinate with them on skills that not only our students but all individuals with disabilities have that can benefit businesses overall and their companies,” Gebura said.

In the meantime, Spokes Cafe understands programs like it are successful when employees leave them for new opportunities.

“We just had someone recently that just left us and everyone was really sad but then we talked about how great, that’s why we’re here, that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re building upon," Green said. "It's so bittersweet because they become your family and you enjoy and love having them here but obviously you want the best for them. They start showing interest or their parents start showing interest because they see like 'Wow, they've made all these changes, they're growing' and it's awesome.'"

Spokes Cafe


Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

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