A Special Blend Employs Those with Disabilities

About a half-dozen baristas-in-training in a conference room at the Carolina Coffee Roasting Company watch Kait Tromans explain how to make a “decaf dirty chai latte.”

“A very odd drink,” she says. “But someone might come in and order something really crazy. It makes for good practice.”

Deedee Ungetheim looks in on the training session and sees a group learning how to do more than make coffee. She sees lessons about social skills. She sees people learning how to bolster their confidence. And she sees an opportunity to showcase “the capabilities of all people.”

The baristas-in-training are among the more than 40 employees who will be working at A Special Blend in Greensboro. The coffeehouse, which has its grand opening Nov. 3, is staffed by those with disabilities.

Deedee, the driving force behind the nonprofit venture, hopes the cafe will “break down walls.”

“I love this idea of people with and without disabilities interacting and getting to know one another,” she says. “We have people with autism, with cerebral palsy, with Down syndrome, some with undiagnosed disabilities. Some have never had a job before. And we’re really hopeful that employers will come in and go, ‘I never thought about hiring someone with autism, but they’re doing a great job here.’ We want to have a ripple effect.”

Two years ago, Deedee walked into a Wilmington coffee shop, Bitty and Beau’s, staffed by those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“I had never seen anything like it, and I was just captivated,” Deedee says. “Someone with autism took my order. Someone with Down syndrome showed me the array of teas. I thought we just had to have something like this in Greensboro.”

Deedee, whose son has a disability, works as a family and marriage counselor and participates in a Christian ministry that works with disabled high school students.

“And I just watched as they graduated from high school and had way too few options,” she says.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32.2 percent of disabled Americans between the ages of 16 and 64 were part of the labor force in 2017, meaning they were available to work, compared to 76.7 of those with no disability. Among those in the labor force, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disabilities.

“A lot of times employers are just not willing or able to give that extra effort to train and think about modifications,” Deedee says.

After seeing Bitty and Beau’s, she set about organizing support in Greensboro for a similar enterprise.

A 501(c)(3) organization, A Special Blend’s board of directors and advisory committee have spent the past year and a half raising money to open the shop and has raised about $250,000 of the needed $300,000.

 “That’s what it costs for all the equipment, furniture, building remodel,” Deedee says. “Wrangler and VF have been huge supporters. A number of other business have contributed. We’ve also been hosting fundraising desserts, where our future employees serve the desserts and coffee and share their stories.”

Katie Dawson, 27, is among those learning to be a barista.

“I like that this gives me a chance to be more involved in the community,” she says. “You learn how to talk to the customers, what to say when something doesn’t come out the way they wanted.”

Patricia Namubiru, 20, who is also training as a barista, says she is looking forward to proving herself.

“I like the teamwork,” she says. “But also this gives us the chance to show our abilities, to show the world what we’re capable of.”

3900 W. Market St., Greensboro, North Carolina, 336.517.7081, ASpecialBlend.org