Career Café brings smiles & skills to NW Works

Photo of a middle aged Caucasian woman pouring a cup of coffee from a large silver carafe.

On most weekday mornings at NW Works, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts out of the John Mason Cafeteria. Those entering are greeted by a host and directed to an open table, where a waiter provides a menu and takes their order. Customers sip their coffee, chat with one another, and hold informal meetings, before paying their bills with fake money. All while building confidence for the “employees” staffing the café.

Photo of three people sitting at a table in a cafe. To the right, a man is bussing the table.

Three days a week, the large kitchen and cafeteria inside NW Works transform into the bustling Career Café, a career development program launched by Customized Employment Manager Bonnie Zampino. NW Works clients participating in the Group Day Support program fill the roles of both café staff and customers on a rotating basis, ensuring everyone who wants to participate in the café can try different roles. 

“It really came together beyond what I expected. Everybody just loves it,” Zampino said. She added that despite mobility limitations, “there is no individual who hasn’t been able to do everything.” 

Generally, five to eight individuals “work” the café, as baristas, hosts, cashiers, waiters and bussers. Several Direct Support Professionals provide coaching, while other clients and NW Works employees fill in as customers. Everyone uses fake dollar bills of varying denominations to pay for their beverages, giving the cashiers an opportunity to practice making change. Donated equipment and leftover supplies from the Firefly Café & Bakery give a realistic feel to the space.

Since launching the café in September of 2022, she and other staff have been thrilled to learn individuals are capable of tasks and activities they had never tried before.  

“Most people, when you say ‘Okay, you’re the barista,’ they’ll say, ‘Well I’ve never made coffee before,’” she said. “A couple of weeks later, they’re making coffee at home now. And some people have reached goals that they’ve had for a long time with money.”  

Even if a client doesn’t want to work in a restaurant, Zampino says the skills can easily transfer into other fields, such as retail. 

“And if people don’t want to work, they at least have these skills they can use that are part of life,” she said. “They can go shopping and know how to interact with the cashier or even just be able to make coffee at home.” 

In combination with the Career Corner and a planned model apartment, Zampino hopes Group Day Support participants will have the tools and confidence to pursue new opportunities in the community.  

“It’s just really exciting to see individuals gain skills that they didn’t have, [doing things] that they didn’t think they could do.”