August 13, 2020
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An artist by training, The Nest board member Mary Jo Helchowski also works as a barista at the community coffee shop that has a goal of providing meaningful work for those with intellectual or emotional disabilities. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

An artist by training, The Nest board member Mary Jo Helchowski also works as a barista at the community coffee shop that has a goal of providing meaningful work for those with intellectual or emotional disabilities. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Mary Jo Helchowski: Coffee for a Good Cause

Published July 17, 2019

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Mary Jo Helchowski was sitting outside The Nest, the new coffee shop on Deep River Main Street, drinking, of course, coffee. More often she is inside, behind the counter, making the coffee, but this was a Monday and the shop was closed.

The Nest, to be sure, is about more than coffee. It is about opportunity. Deep River resident Jane Moen founded the coffee shop to give young adults with psychological or intellectual challenges a chance at meaningful work and a place where they could connect with peers. Moen said the shop had 18 paid employees and 8 interns, and 90 percent of all those who work or intern there have autism or an intellectual or emotional disability.

Still, The Nest is about more than disability and challenge. Moen views The Nest, open since the beginning of June, as a coffee shop for the entire community to enjoy, and not simply for its selection of coffees, teas, pastries, and ice cream. She hopes all patrons will see that, despite their varied challenges, the shop’s employees are hard workers and engaging people with much to contribute to the wider world.

Mary Jo, who lives in Essex, is not only a barista at The Nest; she is also a member of board of directors.

That’s not all. Mary Jo also points to her own emotional challenges as fitting into aspects of the population that The Nest was designed to serve. Challenges, she points out, do not have to have physical manifestations.

“A lot of people have invisible disabilities, even if it looks like on paper they should be able to do something,” she says.

She speaks freely about suffering from anxiety and depression since she was a child, and eventually seeking help for that.

“I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was relatively young. It was hard for me to find a group; I had a hard time making friends; I wasn’t fitting in,” she says. “I was the kid who sat by myself at lunch and I never want anybody else to feel that way.”

Therapy has made a major difference in Mary Jo’s life.

“If you need help, go get it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I had great therapists. They really helped me out,” she says.

In addition, Mary Jo had a talent that carried her through the difficult times: art. That talent was obvious early in her life. She recalls in nursery school, the parent of another child asked her to sign one of her drawings. The mother explained that she had done so because she wanted to show it when Mary Jo became a noted artist. When she was in 1st grade, a classmate whose picture was mocked by other students told his mother that he was comforted by the fact that Mary Jo told him he used nice colors, and that was important because she was the best artist in the class.

In college, Mary Jo studied at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, where she chose to concentrate on illustration because she thought that made her work more readily available to all kinds of people.

“A museum, that can be way above you; not everybody wants to sit and pick apart a van Gogh,” she says. “Illustration is accessible. I want to make people happy and I think illustration does that.”

For her senior project, Mary Jo wrote and illustrated her own children’s book, Mae Flowers, a tale about a fairy who despaired because all the colors for ball gowns had been claimed by other nymphs. Then the sad little fairy hit upon a perfect solution: a rainbow dress. The book is available on Amazon.

Mary Jo dedicated Mae Flowers to a little girl named Philomena, whom she learned about from her cousin, who was the child’s 1st grade teacher. Philomena died from an always fatal childhood cancer, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, known by its initials as DIPG.

When Mary Jo does readings of Mae Flowers and sells copies of the book, she donates $1 from every sale to Storm the Heavens, a foundation dedicated to finding a cure for DIPG.

“It’s so totally unfair, disgraceful that less than four percent of the money for cancer research goes to childhood cancers. Let’s tell people about DIPG and get enough people on board so there are funds to find a cure,” she says.

Now Mary Jo is working on a second book about a young merman, a boy water sprite, who helps a little girl when the lighthouse she lives in burns down. In addition, she has illustrated three projects for other authors and has a fourth lined up.

At The Nest, Mary Jo runs twice monthly evening gatherings that often focus on Japanese comic and animation forms known as Anime and Manga. The art forms are particularly popular with the young adult population that The Nest wants to bring together, though the gatherings themselves are open to everybody.

“They are high fantasy but no romance and princes and princesses; they explore a wide variety of topics,” she says.

Attendance at the programs varies.

“Numbers don’t matter; sometimes they are quiet with two or three people. Sometimes we have 15 or more. They are successful no matter how many people are there. We just want to be sure everybody is kind to each other,” she says.

As she looks forward, Mary Jo is thinking about earning a master’s degree, maybe in fine arts, maybe in library science. She also works part time at the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library. Whatever else she does, she wants to continue her career as a writer and illustrator, with a particular goal in mind: the medal given annually to the illustrator of the year’s most outstanding children’s picture book.

“Ten years from now I’d like to win the Caldecott Medal,” she says.

The Nest, 162 Main Street, Deep River, is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.


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