Students with developmental disabilities are learning job skills at a new Homestead café that opened Monday.
Nine students will spend a semester preparing food and selling it to customers at the AlleC Bistro, at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s office.
The AIU is a state-run agency that supports local districts and operates three schools for students with disabilities.
Nanci Sullivan, assistant executive director of special education and pupil services at AIU, has worked in special education for 39 years. She said the community-based work at the café is an example of the pendulum swing she’s seen in inclusion, integration and work opportunities for young people with disabilities.
“Expanding opportunities for children and youth and adults with disabilities I think is a continual moving in the right direction to give them every opportunity that every other student has,” she said.
The bistro is an extension of the food service vocational programs offered at the AIU’s three schools for students with disabilities. At the bistro they will continue to develop skills such as sanitation, operating equipment, and working with a team. Other students not working at the bistro will also help prepare food at the schools and pack them onto vans in the morning that will go to Homestead.
“It is very important that we are vigilant in our efforts to provide work experiences and opportunities for improved employment outcomes for our youth with disabilities,” Sullivan said.
The AIU’s three schools also offer vocational training in automotive, building and grounds work and industrial arts.
Sullivan said part of the push for more career-training for young people with disabilities can be attributed to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed with wide bi-partisan support and signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. The act is designed to help job seekers access training and placement in the labor market. It also requires state grant programs to provide extensive pre-employment transition services and improve participant employment outcomes.
The AIU is partnering with Nutrition Group, a food service provider for schools.
Nancy Kohl, president of the Nutrition Group, said her goal for the program is to equip students with the skills they need to be a candidate for employment with her company.
Stephon Pete, 19, attends Sunrise, one of the AIU’s centers for students with disabilities. He said he has an interest in the food service industry, and hopes this training can help him get a job when he graduates.
“We’re learning about food service,” he said. “It can also be a good touch-up on your resume or a touch-up on your applications if you want to do that in your future life.”