From Dream to Reality
How one Triangle teen’s quest for employment turned into an entrepreneurial triumph
Ever since she was a little girl, Gabi Angelini of Raleigh, now 20 years old, dreamed of running a restaurant. She began saving her money to make it a reality.
Her goals were well-known among her loved ones, according to her mother Mary Angelini. “People would mail her checks for Christmas and birthdays, and would even write a memo line ‘for your restaurant,’” Mary recalls.
As she got older, Gabi — who was born with Down syndrome — began working a few hours each week bagging groceries. When she wanted to increase her hours, the grocery store declined, so Gabi went on a job hunt. She prepared diligently for a couple of interviews, only to be disappointed when those companies hiring weren’t interested in employing her.
“She was devastated. I was devastated,” Mary says. The pair came to the conclusion that they could make Gabi’s dream job a reality rather than waiting for it to come along. They visited Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, which also has a Charleston location and will soon open another one in Savannah, since the coffee shop advocates for and employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“What do you think about this?” Mary asked her daughter. She thought a coffee shop would be a more scalable project than a full-service restaurant. Gabi agreed it was a good fit and, thus, Gabi’s Grounds was born.
Mary posted a video of Gabi on GoFundMe. Over the course of a few months, supporters pledged $2,000. Then the team at GoFundMe saw Gabi’s story. The company filmed its own video and featured it on GoFundMe.com.
“Within a matter of days, she had $40,000 in the bank,” Mary says. “It just exploded.”
The Angelinis leveraged this enthusiasm into a burgeoning coffee empire. Local roaster Larry’s COFFEE made a special blend for Gabi, and she’s been selling it at corporate offices and pop-up events in the region. Gabi’s Grounds also participated in Packapalooza, an annual street festival at North Carolina State University, and will be at Riverfest in Wilmington, a festival that usually takes place in October but was postponed to November due to Hurricane Florence. Soon, Gabi’s Grounds will release coffee pods of Gabi’s blend, too.
The ultimate goal, however, is to raise enough money for a brick and mortar coffee shop that employs other individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In fact, Mary says she already has 20-30 people interested in working if and when the shop opens. Some already volunteer at Gabi’s Grounds events.
Mary also envisions a space in the shop where creators with intellectual and developmental disabilities can sell their wares to customers. She estimates that they’ve raised about half the funds necessary to open a storefront.
As for other employers, Mary hopes they see the potential in giving opportunities to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Interview them. See what they can do,” she urges. “See if they’re willing and able to do what you’re asking … They should be given a chance. They’ll be [your] best employee, I promise.”
A Trying Trend
Gabi’s frustrating job search prior to Gabi’s Grounds is not unique. According to the “Family & Individual Needs for Disability Supports” report by The ARC, a national nonprofit committed to advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, 36 percent of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities were employed in 2017, compared with the 60-plus percent of the general population that the Bureau of Labor statistics documented as employed in 2017. (The Bureau of Labor also reports that 21 percent of persons with a disability were employed during 2017, a smaller number than The ARC reported.) Additionally, 45 percent of the respondents in The ARC survey who weren’t employed wanted paid jobs.
Barbara Germiller, employment specialist at The ARC of the Triangle, works to improve upon those statistics. Individuals are referred to Germiller or The ARC’s other employment specialists by the state’s vocational rehabilitation offices, which provide training and counseling, among other services, to people with disabilities. The potential workers meet with Barbara and complete a “supplemental eval,” during which they volunteer at three different locations. The ARC strives to vary the volunteer experiences — maybe one at a thrift store and another at a food service location, for instance — in order to see if the individual is ready to work and help participants identify jobs they might like to try.
Germiller then speaks with managers, helps participants prepare for interviews and accompanies them to their first few shifts, among other things — all to help make sure that the participants end up in jobs that are a good fit. Once the participant is employed, a job coach from The ARC takes over, helping the participant work on goals specific to his or her new gig. The entire process is individualized, designed to help participants get not just any job, but a job he or she wants.
“It is important to all of us [at The ARC] to see the people we serve as individuals and help them achieve their personal goals,” Barbara explains.
Gabi Angelini is already on her way to her personal goal. And she’s having a great time getting there. “My favorite part is actually working with my friends,” she says.
Even more fun is in store if Gabi’s long-term plans come to fruition. What will be a coffee shop by day very well may be hopping enterprise at night as well. Her vision?
“Disco night. And a karaoke party. And breakdancing. And a dance party,” she says.
Luckily, Gabi’s friends and customers will know just where to get the caffeine that will help them stay bright-eyed for all of the merriment.
How to Help Your Special Needs Child Prepare for Work
Advice from Barbara Germiller, employment specialist at The ARC of the Triangle
Start with chores at home. “You know, laundry, folding clothes, sweeping the floors, doing dishes,” Germiller says. Knowing how to fold clothes, for example, can help expedite the learning process for a job at a clothing store.
Encourage your child to volunteer. “[Get your child] used to the idea of working,” she says, especially when they have to be at the same place at the same time multiple times a week.
Vocational Rehabilitation is often the first step. The ARC gets all of its referrals through the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services. For more information, visit ncdhhs.gov/divisions/dvrs.
Working isn’t a good fit for every person with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. “There’s no shame in that,” Germiller emphasizes. Families needn’t put pressure on a job being the “next step” if it’s not the right step.
Visit gabisgrounds.com to learn more about how to buy Gabi’s Grounds coffee, as well as how you can help her reach her goal.
Laura Lacy is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill.