Starfish Cafe cuts ribbon, provides work skills to students with special needs

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Starfish Cafe has grown from a couple of tables serving about 30 people to a room full of tables capable of serving about 100. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

Starfish Cafe is a donation-based eatery that teaches students with developmental disabilities skills that can be used in their post-secondary future. The Chamber of Commerce officially welcomed the cafe into the business community with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Student workers, chamber affiliates and Lewisville ISD officials and board members gathered in the Starfish Cafe to cut the ribbon Wednesday, Jan. 18. The diner is a component of LISD’s Focus on the Future program, which helps students with special needs transition into adult life after high school.

“They come to us for the vocational training. We have them from a year to three or four years, depending on what skills they need to build,” said Kristin Strange, program interventionist for transition and secondary life skills. “And we work toward finding employment for them in the community.”

Strange said the students have already graduated and finished all their academic requirements.

“Some of [the students] are vocation-bound and some of them are really developing more independent living skills, working toward things that will help them be more engaged in their adult life when they’re done with school,” she said.

Chamber of Commerce President Ray Hernandez said innovative destinations like the Starfish Cafe are not common across the United States.

Customers place their orders with the student workers and await their lunch. The $7.50 suggested donation covers the meal as well as a beverage and dessert. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)
Customers place their orders with the student workers and await their lunch. The $7.50 suggested donation covers the meal as well as a beverage and dessert. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

“The work that’s happening inside this building is making an economic impact in the area,” Hernandez said. “It’s providing resources of training and tools to teach these young folks to go out in the community and be productive citizens.”

Focus on the Future teacher William Miller echoed the sentiment that this is unique program.

“The teachers and I have been [to] several workshops throughout the state,” he said. “Not a lot of school districts are doing what we’re doing and I’m very proud we’re on the cutting edge of special education services.”

Miller said the goal of the program is to get students employed and help them find meaningful work so they can contribute as citizens in the community. He said students will be able to walk into interviews and say that they’ve rolled silverware, stocked sugar caddies, wiped tables and put products together.

Starfish Cafe offers sandwiches, baked potatoes and salads as the main course. Dessert comes with the meal. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)
Starfish Cafe offers sandwiches, baked potatoes and salads as the main course. Dessert comes with the meal. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

“Which has led to employment at TJ Maxx & HomeGoods, where students assemble lamps,” Miller said. “We have students employed at Cheddar’s rolling silverware. We have students employed by Chili’s wiping down tables.”

Director of Special Education Lisa Davison compared high school class routines to a script.

“When you’re interacting with the community, there’s no scripts in place,” she said. “What happens if I don’t get the order right? What happens if somebody asks for something we don’t have? Or what happens if I spill a drink or something like that? It really gives them opportunities to experience real life in a controlled environment.”

The Starfish Cafe is located at the Purnell Support Center Library, 136 W. Purnell St. in Lewisville. The entrance to the cafe is to the left of the main entrance.

It is open to the public 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Feb. 1, Feb. 15, March 1, April 19 and May 3.

Davison recommends a donation of $7.50 for lunch, as it is nearly the amount that helps the program break even. Any profit made is put back into the program to purchase supplies and food. She said donations of more or less are also welcome.

Focus on the Future allows students to create products that are later sold.  The bracelets are $6 a piece. Products such as body scrub and note pads are made by the students and sold in the cafe. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)
Focus on the Future allows students to create products that are later sold. The bracelets are $6 a piece. Products such as body scrub and note pads are made by the students and sold in the cafe. (Photo by Christina Ulsh)

The Focus on the Future program has about 60 students in it, 24 of whom intern at the Medical City of Lewisville and with the City of Lewisville. Students not only learn vocational skills but also skills that can be applied at home, such as putting away dishes and folding towels.

The business ventures do not stop at the cafe. Students make products to be sold to the community, from screen-printed T-shirts to customized notepads to jewelry. Orders or questions about goods can be sent to starfishcreations@lisd.net.

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