Without realizing it, many people treat individuals with a mental disability as though they are helpless and unable to actively participate in modern society. All 18 students in Prairie Central High School’s special education program are working to change that stigma, one cup of coffee at a time.
    In January, special education instructors Katie Ricketts and Kim Hasty helped the students develop a non-profit morning coffee service for high school and school district staff members called “PCHS Coffee Express.”
    “A lot of people see someone with special needs and feel like they have to do everything for them, but these kids are capable,” Hasty said. “Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do things for themselves. They are amazing, hard-working human beings.”
    As instructors, Hasty and Ricketts have an obligation to help special education students become assimilated into the community. In a constant effort to improve educational opportunities, the teachers attend conferences with other special education programs to find out what’s working and what’s new on the horizon. The Coffee Express business was the result of attending the Illinois Transition Conference last October.
    “We saw a school from southern Illinois that had a similar program,” Kim said. “We talked about it and Katie and I decided this is something we’d like to do. The representatives were talking about it and we took notes on what they did and we took that and even expanded it.”
     Ricketts explained that the school that provided the idea was a junior high in southern Illinois. She said they felt they could expand the program because they had more special education students than the junior high and the high school students are more mature in most cases.
    “We felt that this program would teach them different skills and responsibilities that they can possibly use to transfer into another job when they’re done here,” Ricketts said.
    “After we got back from the conference, we went to the principal (Brad Beyers) and got his approval. We also got approval from Maria Deason, the vocational coordinator with Livingston County Special Services Unit. She helps us out vocationally and also attended the conference with us. She really encouraged us to bring this program to the high school.”
    For the past four months, on every school day except Wednesday, the students run a coffee shop from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Each day, the process begins with a Google Document. A reminder is sent out to only high school and unit office staff for drinks.
    The students offer hot tea, iced tea, hot coffee, iced coffee, and recently began making frappes. Hot chocolate was offered seasonally, but was recently removed from the menu. Ricketts said there is also a “Creamer of the Month,” which is regularly rotated.
    “After doing this for four months, we’ve gotten to a point where the students can do all the work themselves, with minimal help from us,” Hasty said. “We just do a double check before the order goes out, but other than that, it’s up and running by our students.”
    Although no students are currently allowed to place orders, both teachers said the 50 to 60 staff in the building keep students plenty busy. Once all the morning’s orders have been received by students, the orders are printed off and a student goes through and highlights what each staff member wants. Once that task is completed, orders are sent off to the next person and they start making labels.
    Two labels are made for each order. One label is placed on a baggie, full of extras for the staff member, such as creamers and sugar.
    The other label is placed on the teacher’s cup of choice. In the event that a teacher hasn’t left a coffee cup with the students, there is also a styrofoam option. With the labels in place, the drinks are sent off to different students who are in charge of making the various drinks.
    “Once the drink is ready and the extras are ready to go, we have a student who delivers the coffee and the baggie to the teachers,” Ricketts said.
    “In addition to teaching vocational skills, it also teaches responsibility and communication,” Ricketts added. “We’re at the point now, where we feel comfortable sending the delivery students out into the halls on their own. We used to think they couldn’t go outside the classroom on their own without a teacher with them because we didn’t know what would happen, but it’s been going well.”
    Once the orders have been delivered, the student comes back and fills out a billing form for all the orders. The student checks off what the teacher ordered each day and then, every Friday, bills go out to the staff members.
    “They give us the money and we check them off our list. We make change, we write out receipts for change, and then we give it back,” Hasty said. “We are making sure to keep this program non-profit because if we show a profit, we have to get the health department involved. So, we just put the money we earn back into the coffee business. It pays for our creamers and things like that. Any drink is a flat fee of 50 cents and our goal is to break even.”
    What the teachers love is that the program gives students an idea of what a real job is like. They say that after years of worksheets and book-based teaching, it’s nice to be able to offer a hands-on experience.
    “This is the closest we have to the real world for them,” Hasty said. “After the success they see in a program like this, we feel like they’ll feel more comfortable working in a place doing something similar.”
    Ricketts added, “The nice thing is, it’s something different. This is something we can use to teach them, in a way that doesn’t feel like learning. All of the students in our class have a spot in our coffee shop. I think this is helping to open our student’s eyes to different jobs.”