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July 23, 2019  |  

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The Nest crew members Jane Moen, Tim Bouchard, Mary Jo Helchowski, and Kaylee Moen are preparing their new coffee shop, at the site of the former Main Street Sweet Shoppe in Deep River, for a grand opening next month. In addition to coffee, ice cream, and baked treats, the shop provides jobs to young adults with disabilities.

Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

The Nest crew members Jane Moen, Tim Bouchard, Mary Jo Helchowski, and Kaylee Moen are preparing their new coffee shop, at the site of the former Main Street Sweet Shoppe in Deep River, for a grand opening next month. In addition to coffee, ice cream, and baked treats, the shop provides jobs to young adults with disabilities. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

A New Kind of Coffee Shop in Deep River

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The Nest, the new coffee shop on Deep River Main Street at the site that once was Main Street Sweet Shoppe, is about far more than a good cup of Joe. It is about how to make a difference in the lives of young people whose emotional and intellectual challenges make it hard for them to find both satisfactory employment and meaningful social interaction.

The Nest was the inspiration of Jane Moen of Deep River, who has a master’s degree in rehabilitation and counseling from the University of Rhode Island.

“If young adults with disabilities don’t get launched before their mid-20s, studies show it is unlikely they ever will. Their chances go way down,” Moen said. “It is harder for them to be part of a community; they are lonesome, lost on the couch in the basement playing video games.”

Even while renovation and redecorating were going on, The Nest actually hosted video game nights, but as a group rather than a lone activity. Moen put out the word through social media and was amazed by the crew of volunteers who appeared to help with refurbishing.

The shop is designed with the accommodations that make it suitable for people with conditions like autism. There are no florescent lights; one room will remain quiet without any music or sound system interference; and there will be finger fidget toys that have proved useful in calming and focusing concentration.

Now the shop is open, but only for what Moen describes as a “soft opening” with relatively little fanfare and no formal announcement to give the staff a chance to acclimate to their new jobs.

“In a month, I hope we will be ready for a big splash,” Moen said.

The staff of The Nest will consist of about 20 people. There are eight interns, coming from different school districts, all accompanied by a job coach who will help the interns learn how to be successful in their new positions. As the interns learn their jobs, they will work on their own without coaches.

In addition, there are three leads, directing operations, and eight baristas/counter servers. The leads will make sure operations are flowing smoothly as well as take charge of opening and closing the shop. Some of the leads and baristas learned of the program through schools, some through therapists, and others from posts on Instagram and Facebook. And some took an even simpler path to finding a job: They saw the sign on the door of shop looking for help. Moen and an assistant manager will oversee the entire operation.

Essex resident Mary Jo Helchowski, one of the leads, noted common theme uniting the staff.

“All the leads have their own experiences with disability, so we understand this,” Helchowski said.

Moen will provide training for the staff. Tasks include running the purchase and sales operation at the cash register, ice cream scooper, brewing coffee, and running the espresso machine.

“Our plan is to have everybody do all the jobs at one time or another,” Moen said.

She is particularly delighted that she was able to buy a refurbished espresso machine that sells for $15,000 new for about $2,700. The coffee will come from Deep River Roasters and, to start with, there will be baked goods and healthy snacks as well as ice cream. By mid-summer, Moen envisions adding soup and sandwiches to the fare.

Tim Bouchard is eager to start work as an intern after hearing about the program both from his father and from school counselors.

“It’s going to help me make new friends. I am going to serve coffee, clean tables, scoop ice cream—the best job ever,” he said.

“This whole thing is awesome; it totally blows me away,” Bouchard’s mother Anne Bouchard said. “He went to get an application, whipped open the door, and the next thing, he is smiling. That is not typical of Tim.”

“Tim did a very good job on his interview,” Moen added.

The staff are not volunteers; all are earning salaries, but the coffee, pastries, and ice cream will not pay for the overhead and the wages. Moen and her husband Luther have started a foundation, A Little Compassion, to underwrite the operation. In addition to individual donations, A Little Compassion has already received a grant from the Essex Community Fund, and the Essex Savings Bank made a donation from its community fund.

“I am overwhelmed by the support we have received. We have huge goals, but when we have needed help, we’ve reached out and people have come,” Moen said.

Moen envisions planned turnover as staff members grow in confidence and acquire the skills necessary to hold down jobs in other locations.

“It’s like mama birds and baby birds. They [the babies] fledge and leave. They do not stay there forever,” she said.

The idea for both the coffee shop and A Little Compassion grow from Jane’s own experience with her daughter Kaylee who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Kaylee Moen, now in her 20s, once worked at a bakery in Old Saybrook that made her feel particularly welcome and appreciated.

“She flourished there,” Jane Moen recalled—but then the bakery closed.

Moen wanted to create a gathering place where young people with special needs could find the employment experience Kaylee once had. She also wanted a place where they could meet peers, both those with challenges and young people from the wider community. She envisions game nights, movie nights, and trivia nights.

“We want to change the way people see young adults with disabilities. We want them to be seen as active, valued members of the community,” Moen said.

After its formal opening The Nest will be open on Tuesday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. It will be closed on Monday.

For more information on The Nest, visit Alittlecompassion.org.

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