Spencer Nickell does not have a mean bone in his body, he loves to sing and laughs the hardest at his own jokes.
Spencer is a 30-year-old adult with down syndrome, but he has never let that get in his way.
By October, Spencer will have a coffee shop with his name written on the doors.
The shop is focused on hiring adults with mental and cognitive disabilities.
The coffee shop will offer as many organic options as possible while maintaining a focus on being environmentally savvy.
They will provide organic teas and coffees, as well as salads, sandwiches, and wraps.
Karin York, Spencer’s mom, has dreamt of the day the doors open for over 13 years now.
York, who has taught special education for over 16 years, began to realize that the kids she taught in high school had limited options once they graduated, which inspired the idea of Spencer’s Place.
“The bulk of them are at home, they are alone, they are sad, and there’s no purpose at all,” York said, “So it started to really just break me.”
York explained that many students end up in a “grey area” because they do not qualify for certain programs through the Department of Developmental Disabilities.
“The criteria changed when the market tanked around 2008 so my kids that would have qualified were denied because they had to cut some of the funding out,” York said.
York kept seeing this happen and wanted to do something adult related, outside of high school to help give these young adults a feeling of purpose.
It was when the family took a trip to Willmington, North Carolina and visited Bitty & Beau’s coffee shop that York knew she had to make her dreams a reality.
Bitty & Beau’s coffee shop has a similar concept in the sense that they also hire those with mental and cognitive disabilities, but York knew she could put her own twist on this.
“The difference between their concept and mine is that they hire primarily individuals with down syndrome and individuals with down syndrome almost always have services…they are kids that already have something in place, as opposed to our concept, we want the kids that dont,” York said.
While Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop was inspiring to York, she left feeling devastated.
“I said screw it, if I don’t do it now it’s never gonna happen and I’m willing to risk everything right now,” York said.
The family flew home and began to make their plans a reality in August of last year.
The process has proved to be much more challenging than they anticipated.
“We were so naive,” York laughed, “we thought this is going to catch fire we will get it funded no problem, but that has not happened.”
Despite her struggle with funding, the community has been there every step of the way supporting Spencer’s Place.
Jana McDonald, Young Life area director, has worked with York through Young Life for over 10 years.
With her background in special education, York has worked with the Capernaum group, which is a sub group of Young Life for kids and young adults with special needs.
What Capernaum does is “…gives kids a place that they can feel themselves…they don’t have to worry about that social stigma of trying to fit in with the rest of their peer group…” McDonald said.
The Young Life Surprise group plans on working alongside employees at Spencer’s Place as job coaches and volunteers.
“I am so excited for our Capernaum kids to have jobs and feel that purpose,” McDonald said.
Getting a traditional job can be challenging for those with social or cognitive limitations, but York is working on a training handbook and curriculum that she hopes to present to other businesses in hopes they will adopt these ideas.
“I don’t want this to just be me,” York said, “I want this to be a launching pad. They start here and they learn skills they can take somewhere else…”
Spencer’s Place plans on helping employees develop skills like food preparation, cash handling, and customer service so they can transfer these skills at other workplaces.
Spencer’s Place will take an individualized approach in their employment process where instead of the person meeting certain requirements for the job, the job functions around the individual person’s abilities McDonald explained.
“I think the community is going to get way more out of it than Karin,” McDonald laughed, “I just feel like from so many different aspects Spencer’s Place is going to pull the community together.”
McDonald appreciates this partnership because she knows Spencer’s Place will serve as a hub not only for Young Life, but the rest of the Marley Park area.
McDonald looks forward to “everybody knowing they can be comfortable there, which is different than other place we would find in town.”
As for Spencer, he wants everyone to have a smile on their face.
“I am most excited to help people be happy,” Spencer said.