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At this student-run cafe, coffee comes with a smile and life lessons

New Redhawk Café sees Union teacher and her students make special deliveries, learn life skills

Photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick

Grand Rapids – Emily Padron likes to get her steps in. Most days this year the Union High School teacher averaged 6,000 or so. On Fridays until recently she doubled it. 

The reason?

Multiple, early-morning trips between the high school’s kitchen and the rooms of various teachers and administrators who ordered food and drinks from the Redhawk Café.

This was the first year for the café, named for the Union High mascot, and it was run by Padron and the 23 students in her life skills class.

Most of the students have autism. With coaching from Padron and a variety of clear visual supports, orders got filled, Union teachers and staff got a Friday treat and Padron’s students learned valuable life lessons.

On the café’s final Friday morning of the 2021-22 school year, one of Padron’s students, junior Derrick Echols, was shy when asked about his work but said his favorite things included making the coffee and the deliveries.

“I like seeing the teachers,” he said. “I feel happy.”

And with that he and Padron, who is in her 11th year of teaching and fourth year at Union, were off to deliver the first order of the day.

Next came sophomore Timothy Hickox, who was keen to get on his Redhawks Café apron before he and Padron set out to fulfill order No. 2.

“We talk about when we get a job, how do we look,” said Padron. “That’s important.”

Timothy nodded. 

When asked if he’s looking forward to getting a job someday, Timothy nodded again and “probably,” was his quick reply. Timothy likes the word “probably” quite a bit.

Teaching Valuable Skills

He was more verbose when given a choice of who he’d like to deliver to: Jessica Maat or Pat Baker.

“Maat. Is she vice principal? Probably. Yes, I’ll do Maat.”

Padron pulled the order form with Maat’s order.

“Does she want chocolate milk?” she asked.

Timothy grimaced.

“Chocolate milk: never will,” he replied.

Padron laughed. “Looks like we’re making cookie sandwiches for Mrs. Maat,” she said. “They’re 50 cents each. What’s 50 plus 50?”

“100,” Timothy said. “So, one dollar?”

“Exactly, one dollar,” said Padron, and with that she and Timothy were off to make the day’s next delivery.

And thus it went every Friday morning this year, week by week, order by order, student by student, step by step.

‘The coffee and treats definitely provided a morale boost after a long week as did seeing the smiles on the faces of the scholars who were delivering them. And I love that they frequently donate their profits to local charities.’

– Café customer and Union teacher Nicole Durso

Padron said the café was a success as an experiment, a way to teach her students valuable skills. It had a loyal clientele and most months operated at a small profit of $40-$60, which Padron and the students donated to local charities, including Safe Haven Ministries and Kids Food Basket.

​The café’s system was pretty simple, Padron said. On Wednesdays, staff members received an order form from Padron.

“Next school year, I will want the students to start creating the order form,” she said.

Giving Every Student a Chance

Staff could choose from a variety of drink and food options, including such morning staples as orange juice, coffee and chocolate milk as well as donuts and cookies. 

One regular café customer was science department head Nicole Durso, who said it was easy to support Padron and the students.

“The coffee and treats definitely provided a morale boost after a long week,” she said. “And so did seeing the smiles on the faces of the scholars who were delivering them. And I love that they frequently donate their profits to local charities.”

Maat, of the “never will” chocolate milk, agreed.

“I love that our scholars, a few who are non-verbal, are using this experience to develop important communication skills,” she said. “We have an extraordinary group of ASD teachers who are continually looking for ways to include scholars in the day-to-day routines of the school while incorporating valuable life and job skills.”

Part of that day-to-day routine, Padron said, included previewing the weekly orders. As the forms came in, Padron would pull them up on the class overhead and show her students who was ordering what. 

Then, mostly early on Friday mornings, she would head to Family Fare or Meijer to purchase whatever baked goods were needed and to replenish drinks as needed. Beginning at 7:45 a.m. or so, the orders would get fulfilled and individually delivered – one student with Padron for each delivery – some mornings to as many as 15-20 staff members.

“It might take longer that way, but I wanted to make sure every student had an opportunity to work on their life skills,” Padron said.

‘It Makes It All Worthwhile’

Some students used a little script Padron created for deliveries. She’d go over it with them before they left the kitchen.

“It might say ‘“Good morning, and then a blank. Here is your blank. You owe me blank dollars,’” Padron explained. “We fill in the blanks before delivering, and then they have the piece of paper with them to read as they deliver.”

Padron, who has a bachelor’s degree in learning disabilities from Michigan State University and a master’s in autism from Grand Valley State, proudly noted that by the end of the year she had a few students who no longer needed the sheet of paper and felt confident enough to deliver without the prompts.

“It’s great to see that progress in some of the students,” she said. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

And, she added, the extra steps weren’t bad either.

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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