Photo courtesy of Blessed Cardinal Newman Catholic High School

BCN Cafe teaches special needs’ students life skills

By  Kristen Curtis, The Catholic Register
  • May 1, 2016

TORONTO – An award-winning program at Blessed Cardinal Newman High School is providing students with special needs the opportunity to learn valuable life skills while serving others.

The pre-co-op program, called the Blessed Cardinal Newman (BCN) Cafe, is an in-school experience for students with multiple exceptionalities. It began in September 2015 when Verna Whitbread, the head of the resource program, heard about similar programs in other schools and decided to start her own version at the school situated atop the Scarborough Bluffs in east-end Toronto.

“It started with that little seed of an idea and just unfolded from there,” said Pamela Walton, a special education teacher at Blessed Cardinal Newman who helps run the program.

The BCN program involves students running a mini-cafe for staff during their period one and two classes. On Mondays, the students prep for the week by stocking delivery carts, measuring the coffee and going over the order forms from staff. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the students boil the kettles, brew the coffee and make their deliveries. Every second Thursday, students serve homemade baked goods along with hot beverages.

The drinks cost one dollar each. The program’s intent is not to make a profit, just to cover the cost of supplies. When the program does make a profit, beverages are given out for free.

The program prepares the students for work in a co-op program outside of the school, aiming to give the students experience to later join the work force. 

“It’s a very progressive program,” said Ida Go, whose daughter Mikhela is part of the BCN program. “It stresses social and communicative skills which are especially beneficial to Mikhela, who has Down Syndrome.” Mikhela looks forward to school every morning because of the program, Go said, and “she’s thriving from it.” Go also believes the confidence Mikhela, a Grade 11 student, has gained from the program is invaluable.

“The students feel that they are contributing in a very big way to the school.”

“The students have come a long way. We’re running it like a small business” said Walton.

Along with preparation and delivery, the students also do grocery shopping for supplies, handle money and make deposits at the bank into the BCN Cafe account.

Walton said staff reaction has been entirely positive.

“The staff have embraced it; they love it. I knew they’d be great about it, but the enthusiasm is amazing,” she said.

The other students have been supportive of the program as well, said Walton. They offer high fives and hold doors for those involved with the BCN Cafe as they make their morning deliveries. Many students have asked that the program be expanded so they too can order hot beverages in the morning, but Walton says at the moment, the program can’t be run on such a large scale.

The efforts have not gone unnoticed. BCN Cafe was honoured April 20 with the TCDSB Innovative Exemplary Practice Award.

“Ms. Walton and the team really deserve this award,” said Go.

Walton said the award was completely unexpected but a great experience for the students involved with the BCN Cafe.

“The students were so excited. It’s great that they were recognized. They each have so much to offer in their own way. It makes them feel valuable to be recognized,” said Walton.

As for the future, Walton says it will continue and “we hope to expand operations in the future. With funding, we could get a proper cart. Right now, we’re using an overhead projector cart for deliveries.”

The BCN Cafe is a joint effort between several staff members including Walton, Whitbread, resource teacher Rose Racanelli and educational assistants Laura Vickers and Liz Cooper.

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