North Texas Daily

Hugs embraces staffers with special needs

Hugs embraces staffers with special needs

April 28
02:35 2016

Emily Miller | Staff Writer

@emily12miller

A vibrant blue-green sign that reads “Hugs Cafe” swings in the wind in downtown McKinney as customers file through the door. Colorful footprints guide them to Mike Sessom’s counter where they place their order and take a number for their table.

Sessom is one of many workers at Hugs Cafe with special needs like Autism, Down Syndrome or other intellectual or developmental disabilities. For Sessom and many others, this is his one job: to happily greet customers and take their orders.

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Emily Miller | Staff Writer

It’s an opportunity he would be denied by other employers in the job market because his disability makes it a challenge to navigate social interactions and communicate clearly.

At Hugs Cafe, Sessom has the opportunity to offer his autograph on the brochure of the cafe that features his image on the front.

“I’m famous, I’m on the cover,” Sessom said, smiling wide as he scrawled a red signature over his waving picture.

For the non-regulars, Hugs Cafe is a non-profit organization operated by adults with special needs to offer an experience for them to learn while earning a steady paycheck – for regular visitors, it’s a top lunchtime destination.

“It really is a destination,” said Ruth Thompson, founder and president of Hugs Cafe. “We have people coming from all over the place.”

Thompson “literally dreamed” about founding a cafe for adults with special needs, specifically “two nights in a row,” according to her. She wanted to make a safe environment for them to beef up their work experience and life skills while maintaining respect, getting active and training for other jobs.

Thompson’s idea originated from when she worked in Colorado with special needs adults. And then again when she took up cooking and kitchen skills classes at Market Street in McKinney, holding classes in the evenings for small crowds.

Ruth and her husband, Chris Thompson, made that dream into a reality last October, when the cafe began its mission to spread the hugs.

“We have a great team,” Thompson said. “You won’t find anyone more enthusiastic and devoted to their job, it just takes time and patience.”

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Emily Miller | Staff Writer

For adults with disabilities, as a whole, the unemployment rate is 12 percent, nearly doubled in comparison to the rate for people without disabilities. Hugs Cafe strives to “employ 70 percent or more” adults with special needs.

By 2010, Collin County’s population of disabled adults was high, staggering around almost 10 percent according to that year’s census. That percentage has likely grown as more people pour into the area.

Word quickly got out after Hugs Cafe popped up in downtown McKinney. Many team members were contacted by friends and family about the buzz of a special needs workplace hiring. Six months after they officially opened talk is still spreading about the unique non-profit cafe.

On weekdays the cafe has a steady and slow crowd, but on weekends the line at the counter goes out the door. Almost “everyone already knows what Hugs Cafe is about” when they walk through the door, Thompson said.

Maria Caccavale, an advisor and board member for Hugs Cafe, usually stands with Sessom at his counter while he greets customers.

“[We] don’t let it get to his head, whenever he comes for work we need to open both doors for him,” Caccavale said with a laugh.

A local church is getting in on the Hugs action, offering volunteers to help the cafe expand. In the next year Thompson predicts they’ll be in business and making a sustainable profit. Thompson even plans on growing a garden, or potentially opening a greenhouse in the back of the cafe, so that workers with less social skills but plenty of enthusiasm can contribute to the cafe through gardening.

Opening a second location somewhere in the DFW area since they’re “exceeding expectations” and getting ample support is also on Thompson’s to-do list.

For now, though, there are plenty of hugs to go around.

Featured Image: Emily Miller | Staff Writer

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