This is truly an extraordinary of story of someone born with a defect but, through opportunity and training, she was able to work as a trained barista at Em and Jerri’s Coffee Company. Written by Gina Palandri of Espresso Partners.

I had the pleasure of meeting Em about a month ago, after she was referred to us by Kevin Kapaun of Specialty Java, a local Minnesota roaster. Em came to Espresso Partners’ Minnesota training facility, accompanied by her job coach Jerri Reisner, and her mother Tami. This would be their first barista training, and would unknowingly end as one of my most rewarding.

Em was born with a congenital birth defect, called Agenesis of the Corpus Collosum. The corpus collosum is the fibrous tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. It is basically the “train station”, where all of the electrical impulses of the brain pass through. When Em was born, her parents were told to institutionalize her, as she would not be able to walk, talk, sit up, or function in general. It was soon learned, that repetition and routine were the keys to assist Em in her every day functions and tasks.

Em’s parents, long time small business owners in their town, along with some other members of the community, decided  that the town  needed a coffee house. The town’s economy was ripe, for a new small business that would allow people to have a great place to meet, as well as a place to have an awesome cup of coffee. They decided that this could be an amazing opportunity for Em, who most recently was employed by the Goodwill Industries in Independence, IA, to become a barista and an entrepreneur.  Jerri Reisner, Em’s job coach was to be a partner in this venture.

Em has two job coaches, who have worked with her and supported her, in this new adventure into the galaxy of the coffee community. She is getting assistance from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation, and the State of Iowa Work Force Development has taken a special interest in Em. They have contracted with the University of Iowa to film her, as they are doing a documentary on self-employment for adults with special needs.

When we began, I had no idea what a barista training program for special needs young adults, would entail. But as we moved forward, a lot of great tools were thought up. Utilizing the automatic and efficient design of the La Marzocco Swift grinder, we placed bright orange dots of paint to help line up the portafilter with the grinder collar. Similar dots were also used on the groups of a La Marzocco Linea.

Audible clues, like an almost “growl”, were emphasized to teach the tightness of the portafilter when it is properly placed firmly in the group head. Using the automatic, volumetric touch pads on the Linea, we created a system that matched each drink size to a particular button.

Initially, Em’s parents were a little nervous about her steaming milk. But after coming up with a tight procedure of milk sounds, smaller frothing pitchers, and larger faced thermometers, we practiced and practiced until she finally nailed it. Fabulous flash cards were designed by Em’s job coach Jerri Reisner, with pictures, the “words” and descriptions.  The great flash cards are used for memorization.  Some day, I imagine that latte art will be a possibility.

Currently, the staff at the coffee house includes Em, her two job coaches, and a few other special needs young adults. One of the great benefits to her staff is that they are all paid minimum wage, instead of the $1.50- $5.00 that they could possibly be making at other employment opportunities in town.

After leaving there last week after another on site training, I saw Em making mochas, lattes, and pouring coffee.  I left Em & Jerri’s Coffee Company realizing that anything is possible on this planet earth.

Follow Em on Facebook @Em and Jerri’s Coffee Company