Livonia — Danielle Donaldson greets her coffee shop customers with a cheerful “good morning” as they walk through the door. She rings up their orders on a tablet and makes change for those paying with cash for their brewed beverages.

For Donaldson, 36, working at Anastasia and Katie's Coffee Shop and Café, is much more than a job. As a person with a disability, Donaldson said it’s a way for her to learn skills as a cashier, barista and sandwich artist.

“I like the cash register because then I get to learn how to give customers their change back,” said Donaldson, who has Turner syndrome, a chromosomal condition that affects development, and scoliosis. "... (Customers) are really easy to talk to.”

Anastasia and Katie's Coffee Shop and Café is tucked inside a cozy storefront at 19215 Merriman. And its mission is to serve more than chai lattes and avocado toast. It employs workers with developmental disabilities.

The business, which held its grand opening earlier this month, was launched and is run by a group of advocates who formed two years ago to provide opportunities for those who otherwise struggle to gain meaningful employment.

In Michigan, 81% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed, compared to 9% of individuals without disabilities, according to an “Employment First in Michigan" report released by Michigan Developmental Disabilities Network in 2014.

“Through the coffee shop we are the employers, but that will serve as a spring board for us to be able to partner with other businesses whether they’re larger corporations, mom and pop organizations,” said Kelly Rockwell, a board member of the shop's nonprofit, Mi Work Matters.

“That it will serve as something to start the conversation about what it might look like for them to hire somebody with a disability and that we can serve as a liaison.”

In addition to a lack of job opportunities, also at issue is the pay disparity between individuals with disabilities and those without. Those with disabilities are more likely to make below minimum wage, according to the “Employment First in Michigan” report.

In 2019, more than 5,000 workers with disabilities in Michigan earned about $3.61 an hour working in sheltered workshops operated by nonprofit Community Rehabilitation Programs. This is through a waiver to the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

But Anastasia and Katie's Coffee Shop and Café, the 10 employees earn the minimum wage, which is currently $9.65 in Michigan.

The coffee shop is named for two teens with Down syndrome. Rockwell’s 13-year-old daughter, Anastasia, and the coffee shop’s operations adviser Dan Duffy’s 13-year-old daughter, Katie.

Mi Work Matters is supported through fundraising and relies on a team of volunteers. Volunteers also help run the coffee shop and provide training and support for the employees. Detailed written instructions are posted for workers to provide extra guidance.

Employees go through the traditional application process. They aren’t asked about their disabilities.

“We wanted to focus on what their strengths are, what their challenges are and where they need support,” Rockwell said.

For some, this is their first ongoing employment opportunity.

Ian Edgar, 26, said he applied for his job because he wanted a comfortable environment to gain some work experience. Edgar, who has cerebral palsy, works part-time at the shop as a cashier and barista.

“I like being able to talk to people,” he said. “I could talk to people all day long.”

Working in public settings is beneficial for people with disabilities, said Yasmina M. Bouraoui, deputy director of the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council.

"Historically, people with disabilities have been hidden away in special hospitals, facilities, schools and workshops – places where they were segregated from the general population," she said.

"This segregation deprived them of the educational, social, and other experiences which typically developing individuals experience during their lifetimes. It also created a discomfort in accepting the contributions that people with disabilities can make."

On a recent winter day, a steady stream of customers came into the bright and colorfully tiled shop. The menu includes a selection of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, baked goods and an assortment of coffee.

Abby Bernhardt drove from Dearborn with her 21-month-old son, Tony, after learning about the shop on Facebook. Bernhardt ordered a regular coffee while her son had a bagel with cream cheese.

“I’m all for supporting a good cause and good coffee,” she said as she held her son in her lap. “I’m also for small local businesses.”

Donaldson said she sees herself working at the coffee shop for a long time. She hopes to see other employers offering similar jobs.

“People like me that have a disability can learn more skills from it, too, and get more training for when they have to go in the work field,” she said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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