By Joseph Guastella

“Hope” is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

—Emily Dickinson

We who are parents of children with special needs have learned that hope is indeed a fragile thing. Fortunately, hope comes in all sizes, with and without feathers, and sometimes from the most unexpected of sources.

There are in fact very few opportunities for people who are not typically able to become members of the workforce. For our family, that reality underwent a transformation in March of 2021 when we learned that Compassion Café, a non-profit in every worthwhile sense of that term, was offering the possibility of a job with free-ongoing training for anyone over 17 years of age with special needs.

Our first meeting was held at Barry’s Do Me a Flavor in Beach Haven, owned by the extraordinary Baxter family. Something Sue Sharkey, co-founder of Compassion Café, said that day stuck with me, “…that whoever comes to Compassion Café would have a job, regardless of their abilities or skills.” It was not just her words, but the conviction with which she spoke that made an impression and gave me hope.

It turned out there were forty or so enthusiastic kids who were longing for a chance, “…to make people happy,” as one of them stated in a television interview with Stephanie Ruhle of NBC’s Today. Ms. Ruhle had picked up the story of this dream coming true, and it aired nationwide. Later, we saw Ms. Ruhle off-camera smiling and drying her eyes in between talks with some of the Café’s new employees, a common effect of a conversation with any of our budding customer service representatives.

We were grateful for the national exposure which brought a stream of donations, money to help make ends meet. You see, the business model does not make economic sense, a coffee shop does not require a staff of forty paid employees.

The atmosphere at Compassion Café is one of joy, community, love, and unconditional acceptance. The volunteers, staff, and customers of Compassion Café are helping our kids — no — they are allowing our kids to develop their skills, to find the words and the smiles they share so freely. At Compassion Café they experience the type of personal growth that comes with a sense of pride and accomplishment at learning new skills, having a real job and one’s own hard-earned money in the pocket.

Our son, Adam, is 37 years old. Compassion Café is his very first job. His mom says he is a man of few words. These days, however, Adam is learning to find his words. The pride that we see in him, the smile on his face, are real.

The volunteers frequently thank us for sharing our family members with the Café. I always think it is we who should thank them because it takes so much effort, organizing, and patience from everyone involved to make the whole thing work. But I am beginning to understand —Compassion Café is a labor of love with a purpose.

Perhaps the best thing is that Compassion Café is more than a place, it is a feeling, spontaneous, happening whenever the group gets together. It is becoming a community.

This same experience is available to anyone who wants a great cup of coffee or a slice of homemade carrot cake. These gatherings, where commerce is conducted over a crumb bun, shine the spotlight on our loved ones. They in return grace us with their honesty and innocence. They show us how to treat others the way we all want to be treated. Isn’t that the way things are supposed to be? I believe it is. It also seems this feeling is contagious.

Last fall when having breakfast in Beach Haven, we struck up a conversation with our server, a pleasant young man named Ari, a college graduate who returns every year to work on the Island. He noticed our Compassion Café tee shirts and a smile came over his face. Ari spoke most enthusiastically about how extraordinary it was to be touched by the sense of community that Compassion Café had awakened. He spoke of working together and of dreams. The experience was uplifting. I thought about leaving the fate of our loved ones — our world — in the hands of people such as this young man, I got goosebumps, as if tickled by a thing with feathers.

We wish to extend a special thanks to Barry’s Do Me A Flavor for generously providing Compassion Café with rent-free space for 2021. And thanks to The Seashell the Café will have rent-free space for 2022.

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