A rendering shows the plans for the cafe space. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
A rendering shows the plans for the cafe space. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
It was family experiences that brought Lori Irish Bauman to her position, leading the effort to bring the Germaine’s Café to life in the abandoned dining hall at the Southeast Portland Catholic Charities building.

The cafe, expected to open in 2020, will provide job training for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Several years ago, I developed an interest in employment for people with disabilities,” said Bauman, a retired business litigator, longtime Holy Family Parish member and mother of three. “[I] got to understand the need for more opportunities for dignified, regular employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

A Bureau of Labor and Statistics report from February found that 19.1% of adults with a disability nationally were employed, as compared to 65.9% of non-disabled adults.

For years, employment for people experiencing disabilities in Oregon was limited and often segregated. Now, the state is going through a change and is looking to integrate them into the workforce.

Bauman knew there was a need.

“There are just not enough opportunities where people with disabilities can really be integrated into a workplace, be accepted and have a chance to interact with people of all abilities,” she said. And so she began exploring the possibility of starting a business to do just that. She talked with many people about the idea, including some of the staff at Catholic Charities, where she had served on the board of directors.

That’s when the charitable organization became involved with the project.

The organization had just undergone an analysis to look at how accessible services are to diverse groups of people. What they found was Catholic Charities wasn’t accessible to people with disabilities.

The organization complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, but “that’s not the same as being welcoming,” said Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities.

The goal to grow in this area was on Birkel’s mind when Bauman approached him about the idea of starting a business that employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. With an empty kitchen and dining hall in the building and a desire to expand the organization’s reach, Birkel jumped at the chance to collaborate.

“We want to elevate the story of people with disabilities and their plight. And part of their plight is income security,” said Birkel, who hopes the coffee shop will be a welcoming place not only for people to work but also to gather.

Germaine’s Café team has consulted experts in the restaurant industry, in social enterprise and in social work to drive the project from Bauman’s initial vision to where it is now. The cafe will be open for breakfast and lunch. The large dining space, which is expected to also include a private dining area, will provide ample room for customers to gather and relax in a casual cafe setting.

A chef will work on site, managing and teaching the team of employees. The employees, who will be consulting with state-sponsored job coaches, will make food and drinks for customers, act as cashiers, wash dishes, work on inventory and perform other jobs essential to the restaurant. The employees will work in the cafe only temporarily, during which time they will be able to prove to business owners and managers in the community that they have the skills to work.

“The opportunities that Catholic Charities has been developing with Germaine’s Café is really filling a need for training and for work experience for people who experience disabilities,” said Mer Stevens, supported employment manager for Community Access Services, which provides job support for people with disabilities. Such opportunities have been difficult to develop in the state, especially in industries with tight profit margins. Stevens and Anna Keenan-Mudrick, executive director at the organization, joined the conversations with Bauman early on, telling her about the need to have robust training programs that could allow people to show their potential.

“We really pitched the idea of having this be an opportunity of learning some critical skills,” said Keenan-Mudrick.

“Food service is another one of those industries where it’s very difficult to find a good, solid workforce,” added Keenan-Mudrick. “And there’s a lot of people we are serving that are absolutely underemployed and not always given a shot.”

She sees the cafe as a beautiful way to bridge the need employers have for a workforce with the need her clients have to be working in the community.

“There’s a basic desire that everyone has to contribute to the world they live in, whether in a job or as a parent or caregiver or in some creative way,” said Kelsey Bell, director of the office for people with disabilities at the Archdiocese of Portland. Finding meaningful employment for those experiencing a disability honors their dignity as people, she added.

“We need to look at employment as a way to give them something to offer,” said Bell, adding she hopes others will also value that work.

Bell admires the model that Germaine’s Café is taking.

“It’s not just trivial — we’re not going to give you a job because that’s a cute, nice idea,” said Bell. Germaine’s Café aspires not only to train people with disabilities but also to involve people with disabilities in conversations about the business.

Matt Cato, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Portland, has provided guidance and preparation for Germaine’s Café team through a grant application process. He’s come to respect Bauman’s approach to the project and expects the novelty of Germaine’s Café quickly to be replaced with the question of how good the coffee is.

“It’s got to be a viable business,” he said.

Cato recognizes the social impact that Germaine’s Café could have and mentions the importance of having encounters with others.

“If you haven’t spent time with someone with a disability, you’re missing an opportunity to understand what a lot of people in the world experience,” he said. An encounter provides the chance to understand and build empathy, which Cato says is wonderful in itself.

“Any time we move past our attitudes and our prejudices and our limitations, we move closer to God.”