Continuing to break new ground: artist with autism raises money for cafe

Mitchell Bowyer started a fundraiser for Breaking Grounds Coffee & Cafe, a shop in Mount Holly that provides employment for adults with developmental disabilities.

Delran’s Mitchell Bowyer celebrated his 24th birthday last month by raising more than $500 to keep his favorite coffee shop open after the pandemic. Bowyer, who is autistic, has his art on display inside the cafe. (Photo provided)

Jennifer Bowyer is able to find the joy in the small things of life, and one of those takes place every Wednesday or Thursday, when she accompanies her son, Mitchell, to Breaking Grounds Coffee & Cafe in Mount Holly.

“Just seeing such a big smile on his face as he approaches the door,” Bowyer said. “It’s a place that’s dear to his heart.”

Mitchell Bowyer is autistic. But the 24-year-old is also an artist whose work is on display (and for sale) at Breaking Grounds.

But for nearly two months, Bowyer’s happy place — like many restaurants and cafes — had to close during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of wallowing in the disappointment of not being able to make his weekly trip from Delran to Mount Holly, Bowyer took action to help his beloved shop.

Last month, he celebrated his birthday by holding a fundraiser on Facebook to help Breaking Grounds stay in business. He raised more than $500.

“It makes me happy,” Bowyer said. 

Run by the nonprofit Zefer Foundation, Breaking Grounds provides opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities. The two-and-a-half-year-old shop doesn’t just promote an inclusive atmosphere for people like Mitchell Bowyer, but also provides employment to such adults.

“You walk through the door and you literally feel the warmth,” Jennifer Bowyer said. “It’s great. Mitchell has made friends there, and he’s (previously) had a hard time doing that. It’s a comfortable place for him. It gives him the work ethic to constantly want to paint and make people happy. And people like meeting him, so he’s getting that feedback one to one, which is helping with his social skills, talking and communication.

“It’s so many life experiences and goals,” she added. “So many things that we have worked on for so long.”

Just as Mitchell Bowyer started his own birthday fundraiser, Breaking Grounds set up a GoFundMe page to help keep the business alive for the community it has fostered since opening in December of 2017 in the Mill Race Village section of Mount Holly. As of May 5, the GoFundMe has generated just under $17,000 of its $25,000 goal.

Brandi Fishman of Medford, the founder and president of the Zefer Foundation, said the last two months have been worrisome. As a small, nonprofit shop, Breaking Grounds appreciates the support of loyal customers like the Bowyers.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Fishman said. “Our goal is to be able to reopen and to add a takeout window to the cafe.”

Founded in 2015, the Zefer Foundation’s mission is to create opportunities for inclusion and diversity in all areas of the community and employment opportunities for individuals with autism. The coffee shop provided a natural environment to reach all of those goals.

We want to thank all of you who have helped us get close to hitting our mark! The outpouring of love and support by…

Posted by Breaking Grounds Coffee & Cafe on Wednesday, 6 May 2020

In addition to employing adults with developmental disabilities, Breaking Grounds is a hub for local special education students and also a place for vocation rehabilitation and community-based instruction, according to Fishman. 

Just like Jennifer Bowyer, Fishman has seen people like Mitchell Bowyer grow since the shop opened.

“Oh my God, it’s so touching,” she said of Bowyer’s birthday fundraiser for Breaking Grounds. “They’ve been such an amazing family to get to know. I consider Mitchell to be a family member. It’s amazing how much he’s grown socially over the past couple of years. He’s really so at home here and it’s been beautiful to watch.

“And it’s been really amazing to watch him form friendships with the employees,” Fishman added. “Because without Breaking Grounds, neither of those parties would have had the opportunity to do so. So it’s improved their quality of life and it’s improved my quality of life.

“And to see how the community has embraced us has given us a lot of hope for the future.”

Whenever Breaking Grounds reopens, it will have plenty of fresh art to display. Mitchell Bowyer, whose art can be found at autismartbymitchell.com, has stayed busy painting pictures of his neighbors, of nature, farm animals and pets, too. 

As a teen, Bowyer used his art skills to design grocery store cakes. He’s using his extra time now to design cards for first responders at local hospitals, people he called brave in a phone call.

Bowyer hopes that at some point this summer, he’ll be able to continue making his art inside his favorite shop in Mount Holly.

“I’m happy,” Bowyer said of Breaking Grounds’ GoFundMe efforts, “because it’s a place that I can just be me.”