Long Island Cafe Gives People With Autism a Place to Be Themselves
Food| | By Lauren Boudreau
It’s no secret that people with disabilities have trouble finding work. However, one cafe is trying to change that. When Jonathan Barksdale, who has Aspergers, lost his job at Pathmark as a bagger, he spent months looking for another place to hire him, according to Today. Barksdale’s mother, Dorina, told her son that his Aspergers made him a risky hire, which is why he probably couldn’t find a new job.
Barksdale told Today, “I basically felt rejected. Like an outcast.” And he’s not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.1 percent of people with a disability were employed in 2014, compared to 64.6 percent of those without one. Luckily, Barksdale found Cause Cafe. Cause Cafe was founded by Stacey Wohl, a mom who has two kids with severe autism. Wohl opened the cafe to help her kids and others with disabilities learn life skills. “Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do the same things we do,” Wohl told Today. “They want to be productive, they want to be happy, they want to feel fulfilled, they want to be in society and feel good about themselves.” Wohl opened the cafe in April in Northport on Long Island. The cafe now has 15 employees, eight of whom have a form of autism. Barksdale’s mother says he finally has a place where he feels like he belongs. The head of training at Cause Cafe, psychologist Cheryl Mendelson, said places like Cause are so important because they offer a place for kids with disabilities to go after they age out of school-based programs. “Many places don’t employ people with disabilities, so a lot of them end up staying home and doing nothing,” Mendelson said. Mendelson teaches each employee valuable skills, like how to maintain eye contact and hold a conversation, to how to thrive in a restaurant setting. Many of her employees have seen significant results. Prep cook Samantha Esposito would only speak a few words, but now she holds conversations and even trains some employees herself. Another success story is Cody Stillwagon who couldn’t find a job as a chef even though he had a culinary degree. Wohl hired him as assistant chef. “To be able to work here and get treated with respect really changes my life, because I was ready to give up on my dream of cooking after I left the other restaurants,” Stillwagon said. Even Wohl herself is surprised at the success of her cafe. “To think that your child can be productive in society is a dream come true,” Wohl said. “I never thought that my kids, with their level of autism, would be able to interact with people.” She also urges people to help support the work she and others are doing by visiting the cafe. “The people who are coming in here know they’re making a difference,” Wohl said. “You can eat anywhere, but when you come here, you are giving someone an opportunity who might never have had a chance to have a job.”
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