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Building job skills in Deptford

Together Café supports 'social, economic inclusion' for students with disabilities

Albert J. Countryman Jr./The Sun
Displaying some of the food and drinks available at the new Together Café are Adult Center for Transition students at the Rowan College of South Jersey campus, including Scott Champion, Brigete Carruthers, Dominic Lomanno, Lindsey Norcross, Pam McDermott, Michael Caporale, Amy Pio-Burke and Alex Owens.

Walk into the bright, sparkling new Together Café at Rowan College of South Jersey and you will be served by pleasant and efficient students with special abilities who are earning class credits as well as invaluable work experience.

“I like organizing,” said Adult Center for Transition (ACT) student Lindsay Norcross. “I like putting the chicken salad or tuna in containers, and the grapes and fruits. I like spending time with my teachers.”

“I check the drinks to make sure it’s full,” fellow ACT student John Sztenderowicz said. “I make a lot of salads, things like that. I’m trying to learn on the register more and more. My favorite part is the register.”

Also working hard to create a pleasant dining experience on the morning of Dec. 5 were Scott Champion, Brigete Carruthers, Dominic Lomanno, Pam McDermott, Michael Caporale, Amy Pio-Burke and Alex Owens.

The Together Café – tucked inside the lobby of the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine at Rowan’s Deptford campus – is an example of how leaders in education, health care, and local government can work together to support the social and economic inclusion of young people with disabilities, according to Dianne Carbonetta, the college’s assistant director of public relations.

Guy Davidson, Rowan’s dean of academic advancement and special services, noted that he was thrilled about the café’s grand opening on Nov. 15, after a soft launch in March.

“It was a fitting celebration,” he related, adding that there were some obstacles and a lot of planning and hard work that went into opening the restaurant. “It was nice for our students to celebrate what has been a really big achievement.

“There were a lot of moving parts,” added Davidson, praising the efforts of IT specialist Mike Fox, who figured out the technology to connect various computer networks and get the restaurant up and running.

That was because the café is the product of a unique collaboration between Rowan, the osteopathic school, the Rowan-Virtua Integrated Special Needs Center of Rowan University (RISN), Gloucester County, and the Schools for Neurodiversity at the Gloucester County Special Services School District (GCSSSD).

Carbonetta explained that the goal is to create job training and employment opportunities for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities and to promote their inclusion in all aspects of community life.

“The café gives the students job skills and work experience, and is a resume builder,” said Cindy Fornes, the GCSSSD clinical coordinator and clinical consultant to the ACT program, adding that the students are interns and this is their working classroom.

“We stayed true to our vision, despite some hurdles,” Fornes observed. “Less than a year later, here we are. And I couldn’t be more proud or more grateful for the resources, support, and hard work that has gone into this collaborative partnership.”

“I’m excited about the café. I get a full belly and I get to see people with special abilities thriving in the community,” said Dr. Jennifer LeComte, medical director of RISN Center, just to the right of the restaurant on the first floor.

“It’s certainly beneficial for the café’s workers,” she continued. “They learn skills for gainful employment, they increase their confidence and I’m hopeful that they have rewarding experiences with our medical community here. But I would almost say that our community and our medical students benefit even more through gaining exposure to people with different abilities and seeing them as successful citizens in our community, rather than focusing on their specific syndrome or health inequities.”

The café is run by the GCSSSD’s Career Center in partnership with the ACT program at Rowan. It is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. The eatery serves a variety of affordably priced, grab-and-go snacks and beverages along with breakfast sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza, and a rotating menu of options from the fryer.

The expertise of the GCSSSD – who successfully run several other cafés, including the Puzzle Piece at the Bankbridge Development Center and the Hawk’s Nest in Bankbridge Regional School – has proven an invaluable asset.

“This program took a lot of collaboration and experimentation to come up with a model that would really serve our students,” said Davidson, who is also the chairperson for the college’s newly announced Academy of Neurodiversity.

“The result is a fantastic, functional little spot where students from two programs I care about very deeply are learning job skills and having a great time doing it,” he added. “All while meeting the needs of SOM and RCSJ students, faculty and staff who now have an easy and affordable spot to grab a bite to eat.”

The Together Café has already expanded to offer catering services for events around campus, including the Academy of Neurodiversity groundbreaking ceremony and the medical school’s Art is Medicine event, featuring the work of award-winning photographer Rick Guidotti.

“This café will become the food service provider for this college,” said college President Dr. Frederick Keating. “I’m very proud of the young people working here. Thanks to their hard work and the work of our partners, we’re going to continue to make this thing bigger and better.”

To learn more about the cafe, visit RCSJ.edu/Cafe or find out more about Rowan’s ACT program at RCSJ.edu/ACT.

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