This past Tuesday was World Down Syndrome Day, and the theme this year is ‘With Us Not For Us,’ focusing on the fact that “people with disabilities have the right to be treated fairly and have the same opportunities as everyone else, working with others to improve their lives.” This made me think of one of my favorite local coffee shops.
This is the slogan for Esteamed Coffee, located in downtown Cary, North Carolina. Tamara Lapsley and Angie Hudson started working on this café in 2017 with the goal of reducing the 70% nationwide unemployment rate for people with a disability. Both of them had seen through their own experiences the challenges that people with a disability face when it comes to employment. Angie became visually impaired in college, and Tamara is a speech-language pathologist who spent years working with people with a variety of disabilities.
As they observed the barriers people face when they have a disability, they kept asking, “Who’s going to give people with disabilities a chance?” Then a coffee shop opened in Wilmington, North Carolina, called Bitty and Beau’s Coffee. The founders intentionally designed this coffee shop to offer employment opportunities to people with disabilities. This got them thinking, and they opened the doors to a similar coffee shop in downtown Cary in 2020.
One of Angie’s and Tamara’s biggest goals for this organization is that people with a disability have the chance to participate in the community. They offer four key opportunities to help this happen:
When someone with a disability works at Esteamed, they go through the organization’s workforce development program to help the employee reach their full potential at work. Over the course of this program, they learn about the proper way to dress for work, proper hygiene, customer service skills, and any job specific skills they might need. Once they finish their training, the employees work with their manager to develop individual goals that are updated every few months.
On the walls of this coffee shop is a variety of beautiful artwork done by local artists with a disability. Every quarter they showcase and sell this artwork, helping these artists earn a living through their craft. The artist who painted the image below is visually impaired, and her artwork is nothing short of stunning.
This program pairs a typically developing adult with an adult with a disability, and together they do activities around the cafe (such as cleaning) at least a couple times a month. This allows both parties to build a relationship with each other while performing the day-to-day tasks that help keep everything running smoothly at Esteamed.
Their newest program is hosting events at least twice a month for adults with disabilities. These events consist of things like a game night or a yoga night. Sometimes they even do a Mom and Me or Dad and Me event around Mother’s or Father’s Day. At the end of the events, they give attendees the opportunity to connect with each other so that they can continue to build relationships after the event.
These programs all bring different segments of the community together and help create spaces where people with disabilities can belong and be seen. As Tamara and Angie shared, one of the biggest challenges that this community faces is isolation. Once they finish high school, the opportunities for them to participate in the community are limited. It is this social interaction, though, that helps them reach their full potential and gives the community the gift of interacting with them.
The answer? A resounding yes. Here’s some examples of the good that has come out of this organization.
Over the last three years, Esteamed has served over 57,500 customers. They have employed 21 people with a disability, and seven of these employees have been able to pursue further employment opportunities because of the skills they gained at Esteamed. These employees are able to have a “real” job and earn a real salary. They have the opportunity to interact with customers, cross-train other employees, and have other interactions that they might not have had otherwise. Some of the employee’s family members have even commented that they are taking more initiative at home since working at Esteamed.
This opportunity is not just a gift to the employees, but to the business and customers as well. Sometimes the employees find solutions that the managers don’t initially see. For example, they had a problem with their trash bags falling down in the trash cans. During a staff meeting, the manager was reminding the staff to check before throwing things away, and one of the employees grabbed a roll of tape and taped the bag up to prevent making a mess. The customers have also gotten to build valuable relationships with the employees. For example, a group of ladies comes in on Thursdays and discusses one of their favorite tv shows with one of the employees.
In addition to being an excellent place to grab a cup of coffee, Esteamed has been a blessing to the downtown community. They are an award-winning coffee shop and have received numerous comments about what a blessing they are. Plus, their Google reviews are filled with comments about the delicious coffee, the lovely atmosphere, and the excellent customer service. In addition to this, since Esteamed opened its doors, two more nonprofits that work with people with disabilities have moved into downtown Cary. Gigi’s Playhouse works with people with Down Syndrome, and Howdy Homemade Ice Cream is an ice cream shop that also hires people with a disability.
Angie and Tamara shared multiple stories of people who have been inspired by their model and have gone on to hire people with a disability. For example, a farmer from Florida was so inspired from just one visit that he went home and hired a man with disabilities who hadn’t had a job in almost 30 years and taught him to work on his farm. One young lady started a similar café in Hawaii, and a local pediatric dermatologist actually hired one of Esteamed’s volunteers with disabilities to be a greeter at his office.
Tamara and Angie both shared that working with people with a disability is a blessing, not a challenge. In fact, they shared that they had a harder time finding a good manager, while their employees with a disability were consistently showing up on time and ready to do their job. As they shared, when you hire someone with a disability, “You’re not just doing something for them, you’re doing something for the business.”
Tamara’s and Angie’s vision is one where people with a disability are a valued part of every community and have the same opportunities available to them as everyone else. Their biggest goal for Esteamed is to be able to pay all of their employees the same hourly rate that other coffee shops pay their employees. Because they need more employees in the shop to keep things running, they have been unable to do this so far, but they believe firmly that their employees are doing the same job as other baristas and so they deserve the same pay.
When asked about how people can contribute to their vision, Tamara and Angie shared several ways to get involved, including:
On this last point, Tamara and Angie love working with other businesses to help advise them on hiring someone with a disability and are a valuable and accessible resource in that regard.
Here at NC Family, we are pro-life for the whole life, and we value the dignity of EVERY human being, regardless of the standards set by society. This is one of the key reasons that we are so adamantly opposed to elective abortions based on the presumed presence of Down Syndrome and other disabilities. We love seeing organizations like Esteamed Coffee who not only value life, but actively work to celebrate the dignity of every individual. The delicious orange blossom white chocolate latte I had was just the icing on the cake.