Before Nick Trojanowicz started working at the Perks and Possibilities Café inside the Addison Public Library last year, he’d never had a job before.
“The hardest thing for me to do last year is learn how to do the cash register,” said 20-year-old Trojanowicz. “It’s really hard, but now I know how to do it this year.”
Students like Trojanowicz operate the café as part of the District 88 Transition Program, which teaches cognitively disabled students ages 19 to 21 life skills and job training.
In his second year of the program, Trojanowicz works at the Addison Police Department doing clerical work in addition to his afternoon shift at the café.
“Our second-year students can run this without me,” said Lori LaBarbera, a transition program assistant.
While the second-year transition program students set up the café, serve customers, and clean the entire facility with supervision, first-year students like Antina Tucci of Oakbrook Terrace develop work skills through teamwork.
“Xochi, she knows what she’s doing,” said Tucci, who just started at the café a few weeks ago. “I just ask her, ‘What do I do with this?’ and she tells me.”
Xochilt Vazquez, 20, politely asks a customer what she would like then looks over her shoulder to Tucci.
“Cappuccino with whip cream, just a little bit,” Vazquez tells Tucci who stands readied with a disposable coffee cup in her gloved hands.
“At school, there’s nothing like this,” said Tucci, who admits she was nervous at first but already enjoys working at the café.
While transition program students also meet at the District 88 building when they aren’t working two hour shifts at the café or other jobs, their instruction is much different than in high school.
Students learn independent living skills such as grocery shopping, cooking and doing laundry.
“Our goal is when they leave our program, we want them to be as independent as possible,” said LaBarbera.
District 88 transition graduates have gone on to live in group homes or independently and pursue competitive employment.
The skills developed through job training during their years in the transition program are essential to achieving that goal. The café, in particular, gives the students a unique opportunity to expand their skill set.
“For example, the cashiering, most businesses won’t give our students that opportunity to learn those skills,” said LaBarbera.
After a previous café had failed at the library, the space to the left of the entrance now occupied by friendly faces and the aroma of fresh brewed coffee was boarded off.
District 88 saw the potential benefits the café had for its transition students. In the fall of 2008, the library entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the district and launched award-winning Perks and Possibilities Café.
“This is an intimidating work site,” said LaBarbera. “There’s so many responsibilities and so many duties.”
Even after just a few weeks on the job, Tucci explains procedures for stocking, cleaning and organization. It’s her first job, but Tucci now also works at McDonald’s in Oak Brook as a lobby attendant as well where she relies on her strength – customer service skills.
“I love people,” she said with a wide smile.
While talking to people comes naturally to Tucci, all of the café employees share her desire to provide excellent customer service.
“They’re sweet kids, every one of them,” said Chuck Seriano, of Addison, “It’s their attitude when you come in, they just sparkle.”
Seriano and his fellow Knights of Columbus with Juan Pablo II Council No. 14069 at St. Joseph’s Parish in Addison donated funds and cleaning supplies to the café in September.
“Without community support from the Knights of Columbus and various other groups … we would not be able to do this,” said LaBarbera of the nonprofit café.
While the transition program provides many other ways to teach life skills through outside employers, lessons and weekly community outings, the café remains unique.
“[The students] show a sense of pride and ownership,” said LaBarbera.