At Finn’s Bistro, a coffee house on the campus of Willenberg Career and Transition Center in San Pedro, students with disabilities push their books aside to gain real-life employment experience as employed individuals.
“Our students go through the application process and an interview and, based on their interest, start working on skills they would need at a real job,” says Assistant Principal Mary Julienne. “They work on customer-service skills, money management skills and skills that they would need to prepare food.”
Students in the center’s culinary arts class make the paninis and salads and the independent living class bakes muffins or coffee cake daily. All of the items are sent to the bistro, where student workers learn to make sandwiches, salads, smoothies and gourmet coffee to order. Students also learn how to greet customers, operate Square Point of Sale and a cash register and make change. “We wanted to build a facility on our campus that would help students learn the skill sets on site, so that we can make them more competitive when they’re applying for jobs out in the community,” says Principal Gavin Mirigliani.
The program, which caters to students with autism and intellectual disabilities, has proven successful in helping students find work outside school. “Many of our students, throughout their lives, have been told they can’t do things. They are starting to learn and discover that they can, and they are building up their self-esteem to the point where we are actually getting results out in the community,” Mirigliani says. “Fifty-two percent of our graduates last year were able to get jobs. The national average is only 19 percent, so we’re more than doubling the national average for young adults with disabilities getting employment.”
Mirigliani, who himself has a learning disability, has real-world experience in how difficult it can be for students with disabilities to find work. “Throughout my education, I’ve gone through academic challenges as well as social challenges and have found ways of overcoming them,” he says. “I just want to be able to help my students do the same thing.”
Mirigliani was inspired to start Finn’s Bistro, which officially opened Sept. 11, by Leichman Career and Transition Center in Reseda, where the Principal Ryan Morse had started a similar program. “I had the opportunity to go up and see what their classes were like. I thought it was a really good idea and we had a bungalow that wasn’t being used, so during the summer, with a lot of helping hands, we converted an old bungalow into a coffee house,” he says.
Programs like these showcase the value students with disabilities can bring to their communities. “In the past, many of our young adults would stay at home after graduating and collect Social Security and say that the best part of their life would be school. Our hope is that this is just one component of their life, and that their happiness continues on throughout their adulthood,” Mirigliani says.
About two weeks after the opening of Finn’s Bistro, the center was recognized with a mayoral proclamation for the work it does for adults with disabilities. “People are getting to see how truly capable our students are and what amazing things they are doing and what they can contribute to the community,” says Julienne. “We’re hoping it will lead to other opportunities for them.”