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Cafe helps adults with Down syndrome learn skills

Chron logo Chron 12/26/2018 By Tracy Maness, Staff writer

One cafe in Southside Place has started opening on Sundays to give adults with Down syndrome a chance to work and have purpose while raising funds for their new school building.

Since Dec. 2, students from the Down Syndrome Academy have been learning skills through making smoothies and banh mi sandwiches at SmooTea Cafe, a tapioca shop located at 4007 Bellaire.

Samantha Le and her husband Chi opened the Bellaire location in May. Another location has in Spring Branch has been open since 2015.

Online videos from Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, which has two shops in the Carolinas, inspired Le to use her business to improve the lives of those with disabilites.

“The coffee shop was operated by employees with intellectual and physical disabilities,” she said. “I thought to myself that maybe one day I can run a shop like that to help people who have disabilities.”

The Down Syndrome Academy is a part of a larger nonprofit organization called Friends of Down Syndrome. The school started five years ago with 17 students near U.S. 290 and the West Loop. It has gone through three expansions and now has 78 students and a waiting list.

Rosa Rocha, Friends of Down Syndrome president and founder, started the school after her own son David graduated from high school but started to forget how to read because he had n place to apply his knowledge.

Rocha said the students’ work at the cafe is chipping away at the school’s $2.6-million capital campaign for a building of their own and is also helping the students on a more personal level.

“It just increases their self-esteem. They love being able to be productive and do what their peers have done,” she said. “They graduate from high school, and then they have no place to go. This gives them a purpose. This gives them a place to go and continue to be a part of the community.”

Working two-hour shifts at SmooTea allows the students to show off their abilities in areas where they have previously never been challenged, Rocha said.

“The students with Down syndrome, you know, once they get, once they learn a job, they are very consistent. They’re also very dedicated,” she said.

Volunteers — mostly parents — coach and help the students with tasks like greeting customers at the door, preparing food, serving orders and cleaning tables. While it takes the students a bit longer to learn, Le said it just requires some extra patience and effort. Sundays at the cafe are now dedicated to enriching the students, and Le said she is learning as well.

“It’s just meeting people to give them that opportunity. That’s all it is. They’re sweet,” Le said. “They do everything, I think, to perfection, and I’m just like, I need to slow down. It teaches me to slow down.”

Le hopes Sundays at the cafe will help students find meaningful employment. She has even offered two of them jobs herself.

“I hope it will get the communities talking and sharing to other businesses and tell them what we are doing but also to bring awareness about Friends of Down Syndrome,” Le said. “This organization needs our help to grow so they can help educate more adults with Down syndrome. Many are in government group homes that are not being taught or given continuous education and training so they can be independent adults.”

Rocha has been coaching the students each Sunday and said they are working hard and enjoying it.

“We have students that are volunteering to do more than one shift,” Rocha said. “They want to be here, and they’re telling the rest of the students when they go back on Monday how wonderful it was and what a wonderful experience they had.”

SmooTea Cafe is located at 4007 Bellaire and is now open on Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. All proceeds from Sunday sales go directly toward the Down Syndrome Academy capital campaign for a new school building. The cafe also carries colorful handmade birdhouses that the students assemble and paint themselves. Each house is $25, and the proceeds go back to the school.

To learn more about Friends of Down Syndrome or to donate, visit http://www.friendsofdownsyndrome.org/.

tracy.maness@hcnonline.com

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