Numerous friends had been badgering me to check out a restaurant located near my office with a national reputation for preparing young adults with developmental disabilities to enter the workplace. I didn't get to visit the Two Cafe and Boutique until our daughter from med school was in town and she and my wife were in search of something healthy for lunch. I'd been told by folks involved with our ministry that I needed to meet Shari Hunter, the founder of the Two Cafe and Foundation. I had some time this past week to hang out with Shari at the Cafe. She has lots of very relevant ideas and experience to share with the disability ministry community.
I didn't know about Shari's connections with the church until our recent conversation. She's a graduate of Cedarville University. Her husband (Nate) served as a pastor at several churches in our immediate area. Her current mission began when their youngest child (Derek) was identified at birth with Down Syndrome.
The cafe and foundation derive their names from Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (ESV).
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
Shari discussed her parenting approach with Derek when the Today Show sent a crew to do a feature on the cafe.
"I was so concerned for Derek and for his future," Hunter said. "And mostly because I was afraid of what society thought, and I felt society didn't really provide equal opportunities and acceptance."
She made a promise to herself then: "I will never label him and I will never limit him," she recalled. "I'm going to raise him just like I'm raising (my other children) Christian and Tiffany. We're just going to see what happens. We're going to see what he can do."
Her approach to parenting ultimately led to a vision for a different employment model for young adults with what she describes as "exceptionalities."
Hunter is particularly interested in hiring individuals who recently graduated from high school or from sheltered workshops, government-run programs in which people with disabilities (or exceptionalities, as she calls them) work, often for less than minimum wage.
“It’s so important because right now, individuals that are transitioning out really don’t have a lot of good options,” Hunter said. “And so they are sitting at home. They’re bored. They’re depressed.”
But she doesn't believe segregated work sites are the solution. The world needs community-based employment. In other words, more places like Two Cafe.
"We have to have higher expectations, not lower," Hunter said. "We need to provide more opportunities, not less. We need to have clearer, firmer discipline with love, not less. And I want young parents to know those things.”
Even if, as Hunter has learned, that means letting them figure some things out on their own.
"I tell parents all the time, 'Yeah, we love to put them in a bubble and protect them,'" she said. "But that is the worst thing we can do. Just let them go and make their choices and sometimes make their own mistakes. That's what it's about. That's life. That's parenting."
The Today Show segment captures Shari's vision of the Two Cafe.
I got to meet Derek when I came by to visit. He's far more optimistic than I am about the Browns this season. He's "launched" from his home more successfully than most young adults I know. Derek is married to Lauren (who he met through work). They have their own home in a nearby community. Lauren owns her own gift basket business. Derek and Lauren both drive. They also go to a different church than the one Derek's parents attend.
The Two Cafe approach is based upon a peer buddy model. They train employees to assume the role of a job coach and provide support to students working in the cafe. The principles of their training don't necessarily need to be applied in a food service business. Two Cafe has relationships with approximately 20 businesses in the greater Cleveland area that provide permanent employment to individuals who train in the restaurant.
Shari and I got into a conversation about how the values that shape Two Cafe might be applied in the church. These are some thoughts on what a "Two Cafe" approach to ministry might look like with kids and adults with exceptionalities.
Names, not labels. We would look at each person as an image bearer with unique gifts and talents to contribute to the church. No one would be described as having "special needs."
Excellence in all we do. We would expect them to serve, and to do so with the same standard of excellence as everyone else representing the church in an area of ministry.
Celebrate strengths and diversity. We would spend more time identifying what our attendees can do and building upon their strengths as opposed to conceptualizing them by what they can'tdo.
We are all better when we do life together. We wouldn't have "siloed" ministries for persons with disabilities. We'd be looking to include them in worship services and all the other ministries and activities charged with making disciples.
Shari's goal is to launch 100 sites around the country offering the type of work experience currently provided in the cafe in Chagrin Falls. Could there possibly be a better place to host this type of job training than a church, a Christian school or university or a Christian-owned business?
Interested in bringing Two Cafe to your community? Click here if you're interested in learning more from Shari's team.