Extra Helping at Compassion Café
[July 3, 2021: Jon Cohen]
As a board-certified behavioral analyst, Erin Sharkey works closely with a lot of families who have children with autism or behavioral issues. Her company is often contracted to work in Ocean County schools.
“Southern Regional and the Toms River Schools, some of them have amazing programs. But aside from a few day programs, there really isn’t anything once these kids graduate,” said the 33-year-old Manahawkin resident.
There simply aren’t a lot of employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled in the area.
Sharkey and her aunt, Sue Sharkey, had a lot of downtime through the pandemic. The family has been in the area since the ’70s and always heavily involved in the community. Sue has been a physical education teacher at Southern Regional High School for 30 years. Her husband was the Ship Bottom Police Department chief for many years.
“Sue was getting ready to retire, and I was thinking of different ideas. We were having one of those ‘how can I change the world’ discussions,” explained Erin.
The idea came to them in the form of Compassion Café, a place that gives people with disabilities real-world work experience and the feeling of earning a paycheck.
“I knew I wanted to do something with a restaurant aspect,” Erin said. “I always worked in restaurants. My aunt worked at Cool Beans as a summer job. That’s where you learn the skills of life. You learn to deal with nice people. You learn to deal with difficult people. You learn money skills and time management. Those are some of my fondest memories.”
Erin had already created a prototype for the café with some of her students. She used her relationships with the owner of (recently closed) Fred’s Diner in Beach Haven and Three B’s Bar & Bistro in Lakehurst to get some of these students with disabilities into a restaurant when it was closed, doing the servers’ side work. This landed some of her students jobs, working four- to eight-hour shifts busing tables or running food. They were working among the public and legitimately helping the places of business.
But this year, the pair have launched the real thing and got nonprofit status. They began in April by having new “hires” meet at the United Methodist church in Beach Haven Terrace, where they would train them and assess skills. They simulated tasks to identify who was able to work a cash register or count money. Then came the big opening in May of Compassion Café, inside and out front of Barry’s Do Me a Flavor in Beach Haven.
“When Sue Sharkey first told us about their idea for Compassion Café, my wife, Nicole, and I immediately said, ‘Do it at Barry’s!’” said Barry Baxter, longtime owner of Barry’s Do Me a Flavor. “Not only was it an awesome concept and idea, but the Sharkeys are like family, as all their kids and a lot of nieces, including Erin, have worked here over the years.”
The Sharkeys are extremely grateful for the Baxters’ generosity and friendship.
Compassion employees are each given a schedule. They show up and spend their work hours setting up, selling the goods, accounting for the money, cleaning up and interacting with the public. And at the end of the week, they are given a paycheck.
“It’s been going so smooth. I think I make more mistakes than the kids,” Erin said with a laugh. “Everyone who visits is blown away. We’re showing that this is truly possible. It’s very rewarding for everyone. It’s rewarding to me. Psychologically, it’s very good for the employees, and it gives these families a sense of hope.”
Furthermore, it shows society that people with disabilities can work in certain roles. There is certainly no lack of job openings around the Island this summer. Getting some of these people into the workforce is a goal.
And while there is a profit, the operation needs funding to continue. So far, local businesses and families have made personal donations.
“What we are going to start doing is having interested individuals host garden parties at their homes where we will share more about Compassion Café and our mission in a small group of close friends fundraising setting,” Erin said.
She is touched by the support to date. She sees people coming specifically to Beach Haven to shop and support the business.
“I’m overwhelmed by the way our community has opened its arms around us,” she stated. “I am passionate about the special needs community, and I love every kid I work with. Love comes first, and then everything else falls into place.”
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