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Life’s Funny

Gate City Synchronicity

The cafe and the coffee shop

By Maria Johnson

The name of this column allows a lot of flexibility, which is good because sometimes life is ha-ha funny, and sometimes it’s hmmm funny . . . like this story.

A few months ago, Greensboro saw a first: the simultaneous birth of two open-to-the-public businesses staffed mostly by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Here’s the kicker: The local women who spearheaded these enterprises — a downtown cafe named Chez Genèse and a coffee shop called A Special Blend on West Market Street — didn’t know each other until their plans were well underway.

Hmm. Was that just a nifty bit of synchronicity —two seemingly unrelated things happening in different places at the same time — or a sign of larger societal change bubbling up right here in the ’Boro?

You can read about Kathryn Hubert, the spark of Cafe Genèse, on page 48.

For Deedee Ungetheim, who chairs the board that oversees A Special Blend, the inspiration is her son Bryce, born 21 years ago with a rare condition called Charge Syndrome.

Bryce had about 25 surgeries in his first five years. Deedee homeschooled him, and she worried as high school graduation approached; 80 percent of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed.

“You want them to have a place where they can get hope and live happy, thriving lives,” Deedee says.

Then, in May 2016, while in Wilmington, Deedee and her husband, Jeff went to Bitty & Beau’s, a coffee shop that was swimming in national publicity for hiring lots of disabled people.

“There was this wonderful interaction between the customers and the employees,” Deedee says. “I’ve never been any place that had such a fun atmosphere.”

She left caffeinated and bent on replicating the idea.

“I’m glad nobody told me how much work it was going to be,” she says.

She spent the next year presenting the project not as a question, but as a fact: She was going to open a self-sustaining, nonprofit coffee shop focused on employing adults with disabilities arising from autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and a slew of other conditions.

There would be lots of training and support.

There would be volunteer slots, too, for people with significant challenges, people such as her son Bryce, who communicates with American Sign Language.

Deedee, a marriage and family therapist, was stunned by the number of people who wanted to help. Many of them had disabled family members or friends, which is not surprising because 13,000 folks in Guilford County have intellectual or developmental challenges.

Powered by 150 supporters, Deedee and company raised $250,000 in less than two years, a staggering feat for a team with no fundraising experience.

VF Corp. gave a chunk of money. Their Wrangler brand donated uniforms and embroidered aprons, lending an air of professionalism to the staff of 44 — 21 disabled employees, 19 disabled volunteers, and four paid managers who are NT, or neuro-typical.

A volunteer committee with serious design chops handled the metal-and-wood decor, hence the live-edge wood counters in the front windows and a private meeting room with barn doors that roll on heavy rails.

“People say, ‘We expected it to be a nice coffee shop, but this is a really nice coffee shop,’” says Deedee.

Both A Special Blend and Chez Genèse boast beautiful settings and top-flight food and drink. Deedee and Kathryn — who stay in touch via text and cross promote on Facebook — don’t want your pity; they want your repeat business.

Along the way, you’ll interact with folks who are different, which is key.

Deedee says most people feel awkward interacting with disabled individuals: “People say, ‘Hello,’ and they move on.”

“The cafe and the coffee shop require us to swap more than a hello, and allow us to see people’s abilities, not just their disabilities.”

Deedee downplays the significance of the two businesses opening at the same time. Honestly, she says, she hasn’t seen much movement in attitudes about disabled people in Bryce’s lifetime. She’s old enough, at 59, to know that real change comes at the pace of barely perceptible tectonic shifts, such as the slow inclusion of disabled workers at restaurants, discount stores and grocery stores.

Still, she’s fielding inquiries — one from Colorado — from people who want to open disabled-dominant businesses. At the same time, a steady parade of parents bring disabled children into the Greensboro shop to see what’s possible for people like them.

So maybe Greensboro’s twinning moment is not a quake but a tremor, one that gives 56-year-old Grey Cockerham, a barista at A Special Blend, the confidence to invite Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan for a visit.

“Do you think she’ll come?” he says.

Betcha a cup of coffee she will.  OH

Also on Maria Johnson’s recommended reading list: Top 25 Reasons Your Dog Follows You to the Bathroom.

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