Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates serves up meaningful work for young people with intellectual disabilities


At Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates, Tom Jackson, left, and the eponymous Cameron Graham work on the chocolate ganache. (Jason Hornick/for Express)

Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day, Cameron Graham, 23, is hard at work arranging display cases, dipping chocolates and greeting customers — and loving every second of it. It’s a job her parents, Ellen and Jim Graham of McLean, Va., always wanted to find for Cameron, who has intellectual disabilities, but never could. So they created it.

They took what Cameron loved — baking — and opened Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates (9639 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; every1canwork.com), a cafe that offers work opportunities to Cameron and others like her.

“Lots of businesses employ disabled adults in back-office type of situations where they open mail all day long,” Jim says. “These disabled adults are always the last to get hired and then the first to get laid off or fired when things go bad.”

Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates has a parallel work environment where disabled and non-disabled employees work side-by-side doing the same things.

The store manager, a culinary school grad, delegates daily tasks based on employees’ preferences and abilities. A job coach comes in every day to ensure that the disabled workers are doing tasks they like and can handle. She also spends a half-hour going over life skills, such as how to get around town or navigate a grocery store.

Together with seven others — two of them intellectually disabled — Cameron has been making treats since the shop opened in October.

“I love it a lot,” Cameron says.

Cameron found her passion through a culinary arts program at the Davis Career Center, a part of Fairfax County Public Schools’ vocational training. As the end of the program approached, her parents began scouring Virginia and Maryland for bakeries that employ people with disabilities. They found a handful in Virginia, but none were nearby.

“We wanted Cameron to have interaction with the public in addition to being able to bake,” Ellen says. “It became clear to us that we needed retail.”

So Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates was born. But creating a place for Cameron to work was only part of the Grahams’ mission.

“The problem is: How do we get our children to work in the communities where they grew up and where they know people and where they live?” Ellen says. “If we employ 100 people, we’re not solving the problem.”

They founded the nonprofit Every1 Can Work to help other people start businesses that provide meaningful work for disabled adults. Cameron’s is the foundation’s first enterprise.

Still, Jim hasn’t lost sight of the fact that Cameron’s is a business. Customers don’t return for more treats because they’re sympathetic to the mission, he says. “They come back because the chocolate chip cookie they had was absolutely terrific.”

That’s why Cameron’s has a rotating menu with specialties like chocolate-covered toffee and dark chocolate salted caramels ($5 for four pieces).

Cameron says her job has another perk: working with her best friends.

Maddie Leasure, 24, who attended Davis with Cameron, joined the store when it opened. She works 30 hours a week stocking chocolates in the case and helping in the kitchen, says her mother, Tana Leasure of Vienna.

“We want our kids to have meaningful work and we want them to have friends,” but there aren’t many opportunities for them to do so, she says.

“Taking pride in their jobs and doing something that’s not a rote thing, it just changes who they are.” Stephanie Kanowitz (for Express)

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The Manolo · March 7, 2014