It’s a sunny January morning when a school bus rolls up to a bustling coffee shop in Little Falls. Today a class from Spectrum360 Upper School is making a CBI (Community-Based Instruction) trip to Ethan & the Bean, one of our community partners that is making a difference in the autism community.
This is the Upper School students’ second visit to Ethan & the Bean. For Spectrum360 students, CBI trips are an integral part of learning independent skills and being out in the community. The store is welcoming and bright, with jazzy music playing softly in the background. Customers sit at small tables and the walls are covered with artwork. The Brooklyn vibe via Little Falls is appealing to customers of all stripes.
The shop’s namesake is the 20-year-old son of founder Pamela Donovan. Ethan has autism, epilepsy and is non-vocal. Finding employment for young adults and adults on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities is no easy task and after unsuccessfully looking for jobs for Ethan, Donovan decided to create a workplace welcoming to him and others in similar situations.
Together with a team of friends, teachers and therapists, Donovan founded the non-profit Ethan & the Bean with the goal of helping special needs individuals find employment in the community, learn soft skills, and receive vocational training for the future.
The group began with a pilot program during an 8-week summer camp in 2018, setting up a pop-up location in the basement of a West Caldwell church where they trained students in the range of skills needed to work in a coffee shop. From that time they fundraised to open their own cafe.
In October 2019, the non-profit opened the Little Falls cafe on 98 Main Street, which has quickly become a bright spot in the neighborhood.
Entering Ethan & the Bean, part-time employee Mike greets customers with a smile. Personable and charming, Mike started out with the original pilot program and now takes orders, runs the register, and serves drinks. Chatting with customers is the best part of his day – and he’s great at it.
Shop manager Danielle Felter has also been with the shop since its inception. A coffee expert, her love for the bean first led to jobs with a roaster and other coffee houses, and having a nephew with cerebral palsy drew her to Pamela’s mission. Two other typical employees, Aaron and Manuella, are both baristas and also help train the non-typical staff.
The non-profit has partnered with Caldwell University’s Department of Applied Behavior Analysis, with members who are working on procedures and manuals to train non-typical staff job-related and social skills. They also assist with training typical staff to work with and manage individuals with disabilities.
In addition to Mike, part-time employee Thomas keeps tabs on the shop’s inventory, makes supply lists, fills orders and is an all-around powerhouse. The staff is rounded out by two volunteers, Ben and Bryan, who help stock supplies, stamp bags, and other chores.
“Working at this coffee shop has been so rewarding. Teaching our staff what I know about coffee and watching them develop their barista skills along with their social skills has been amazing,” says Danielle. “Seeing the community interact with our staff with such patience and compassion makes you feel like we’re making some small difference in the world.”
As the A360 students, along with their aides, come to the counter, Danielle oversees while Mike serves his customers. A barista in the background fills the orders and things move smoothly. The teens purchase coffee, drinks and choose from an assortment of snacks if they want.
It’s a great afternoon out, but CBI trips are much more than a fun escape from class. There are many lessons underlying what most would consider a quick coffee stop. Students are practicing social skills – interacting with each other and store employees and how to conduct themselves. There’s learning how to approach the register, make an order, speak to the cashier. They’re also applying mathematical skills – counting money, paying for their items, checking their change. These lessons are reviewed in the classroom daily, and prior to leaving on their trip, and now comes the challenge – and excitement! – of going out into the world and living them.
Community partners are an important part of Spectrum360’s goal to prepare its students for life beyond school. Without them, things such as CBI trips wouldn’t be possible. We are grateful to Ethan & the Bean for being so welcoming to our students and for its core mission to create employment for those in the autism community.
Ethan & the Bean is located at 98 Main Street Little Falls, NJ.