Every morning at Washington High School, as bleary eyed students make their way to class, a small group of students are already hard at work serving up snacks and beverages.
The Life Skills class at the high school takes coffee and snack orders as the Cocoa Cafe fills with students and staff members in the early hours of the day.
Special Services teacher Judy Obermark’s class handles almost everything the cafe has to offer. The students prepare food, clean the cafe, take orders, work the cash register and run orders to students and staff.
“The cafe teaches them life skills, but also promotes interactions between our students and the rest of the student population,” Obermark said.
“They learn the different parts of the job,” she said. “It starts with setting everything up and then putting everything back. They take orders, run the cash register, everything.”
The Life Skills instructors at the high school work to teach the special needs students skills they will need to be as independent as possible in everyday life. For these students, those skills take shape every school day from 8-8:25 a.m. in the Cocoa Cafe.
The cafe was first launched in 2004, when the WINGS Education Foundation provided start-up money for the purchase of necessary equipment. Later, the foundation awarded another grant to install a new stove that allowed access for students in wheelchairs.
Since then, the cafe has been passed down to each new Life Skills class. Obermark said the program does more for the students that regular classes — giving them real life work experience and preparing them for their lives after graduation.
Students and teachers alike rush to the cafe each morning in search of a quick drink or a snack before class. A greeter stands by the door, welcoming guests as the rest of the special service students work in the kitchen, taking orders and preparing coffee and snacks.
The money students and staff spend at the Cocoa Cafe is donated to several charities, such as Loving Hearts. This Christmas the cafe plans to donate funds to a family in need.
The cafe, which is located in the west wing of the high school, is filled with several tables and chairs, a couch and cafe-like decorations for students to relax before they head to their morning classes.
Obermark said one of the most important parts of the cafe’s day-to-day operation is the interaction her students have with the rest of the student body.
“The regular education students get to know them,” she said. “They get to see each other in action and it takes away the awkwardness.”
Special Services Paraprofessional Bonnie Rademacher helps the students with their everyday tasks at the cafe. She said the cafe offers the Life Skills class opportunities to interact with the student body they typically would miss out on.
“The fact that they can get some on job training, which is really hard for our kids to do in our society today, is amazing,” Rademacher said. “A lot of the students are confined to this side of the building. You find that a lot of kids will say hi to each other after meeting here. It creates a great interaction for the students.”