By Joseph Ruzich Chicago Tribune.
Aubrey Fasano's dream jobs include working at a bridal shop or becoming a server at a high-end restaurant after she completes high school next year.
Fasano, 21, is now working as a barista at the Transition Perks coffee shop, a new business next to the train station in suburban Western Springs that helps special needs students like Fasano learn job skills.
The coffee shop, which is part of the suburban Lyons Township High School Transition Program, opened to the public Nov. 14. The program assists students ages 18-22 with special needs in learning everyday vocational skills for independent adult living.
"I am learning a lot of people skills," said Fasano, of suburban Countryside, who was handing out coffee cups and muffins to customers on a recent Monday morning. "So far (the customers) have been very nice."
The storefront's owner, Nicholas Cozzi, is allowing the district to run the coffee shop rent free during school months. Cozzi, who has a brother in the LT Transition Program, runs a Tropical Sno snow cone business at the site during the summer.
Suburban Western Springs resident Mary Jo Cox, 51, visited the coffee shop for the first time recently.
"I love the idea," Cox said. "It gives them a great opportunity to prepare for the work world. I think there is also a need for a coffee shop like this in the community."
While a Starbucks coffee shop is just across the railroad tracks, several customers said the new coffee shop offers them a cost-saving alternative for those who prefer just a regular "cup of joe," especially since a nearby 7-Eleven shop that sold coffee recently closed.
Dave Paske, the transition program vocational coordinator, said the new coffee shop will help students gain valuable experience in the areas of customer communication, organization, inventory and cleaning.
Paske said the district will rotate the coffee shop's student staff to have a different set of students working at the site each day. Two students and a job coach will be there in the mornings, but several other students might come in the afternoons to clean up and do inventory work.
"We want them to develop skills that are transferable to qualify them for other types of employment," Paske said. "They can take these types of experiences to any restaurant and customer service business."
Brian Mahoney, special education division chairman, said students interested in working at the coffee shop will be required to fill out job applications and attend a one-on-one interview for the position. Students will also be evaluated and receive feedback about their work progress.
"We want their experience to be as authentic as possible," Mahoney said. "When they do age out (of school), we want to make sure they are prepared to take on what is coming next (in their lives) for them."
District officials said the coffee shop probably will serve commuters at the nearby Western Springs train station. Students in the program will be passing out fliers and coupons to get the word out about the new coffee shop.
The Transition Perks coffee shop will be open on days when school is in session from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. Professional-grade coffee machines were donated by Bunn and Stewart's coffee.
The coffee shop also sells gluten-free pastries from Flur Bakery in Riverside. District officials said that while students will not be paid, profits from the coffee shop will help fund the Transition Program and a new scholarship program that will help students transition from school to the working world.
"The scholarship might pay for a college course or a vocational program for them to take," Paske said. "It can also be possibly used for a technology device to assist them."
The district has about 450 students in the special education program and about 45 students in the transition program. There are about 40 businesses in the area that have partnered and hired students from the program, including car dealerships and restaurants.
Paske said students with special needs are often excellent workers.
"They bring a lot of energy to their workplace because they really appreciate the opportunity," he said.
Special needs student Sam Smetko, 21, said he hopes to learn job skills at the coffee shop that might help him get a job at a restaurant.
"I want to cook food some day (for a restaurant)," Smetko said. "That's what I really want to do."