ZELIENOPLE — The Strand Theater Initiative's cafe that opened earlier this year is giving special education students from Seneca Valley a chance to get real world training that will make them job-ready in the future.
When the Strand Box Office & Café opened in February, 11 students from the Seneca Valley special education program began working in the coffee shop weekday mornings, said Jessica Pyle, transition coordinator for the school district.
It's part of the school district's community-based vocational training program, she said. The Strand Theater Initiative has been a site in the program for several years, along with eight other sites in the community, Pyle said.
“The fact that we're able to partner with the school district that has a vested interest in getting students real world work, it's a great synchronous relationship,” said Ron Carter, president of the Strand Theater Initiative.
Students run the cafe under the supervision of a district job coach, taking orders, running the cash register, making specialty coffee drinks and cleaning the facility. It was the natural next step for students who started out in the Raider Roast cafe, Seneca Valley's on-campus coffee shop in the senior high school that is also run by the special education students. The goal is to make students ready for the competitive work force, Pyle said.
“What better way to transfer their skills from a school environment to an integrated social environment,” Pyle said.
Zack Brezina works in the cafe every day and has also volunteered there on the weekend before a show at The Strand. They make frappes, flavored iced coffees and teas along with regular coffee and espresso, he said. It was Zack's idea to create a chocolate and peanut butter-flavored drink that tastes like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
“It's gotten positive feedback,” he said of his drink creation.
In the afternoon, the Strand box office staffers work in the cafe, which sits in the building next to the theater. The box office was relocated to the rear of the cafe when it opened up.
The theater had rented the cafe space to various tenants over the years, Carter said, with the most recent tenant running a coffee shop/vape shop.
With the equipment already installed in the space, it seemed like an easy step for the Strand to start up its own cafe. However there was the issue of staffing for the nonprofit, Carter said.
That's when one of the Strand's board members who has a student in Seneca Valley's special education program brought up the Raider Roast, Carter said. With the Strand's established connection to Seneca Valley through the vocational training program, it made perfect sense to get students involved in The Strand Cafe who already had experience serving coffee, Carter said.
“This would be the next logical step for their program,” he said.
Students who excelled in the on-campus cafe moved on to The Strand Café on Zelienople's Main Street, making more complex drinks and interacting with the public, Pyle said.
The students will staff the cafe from 8 a.m. to noon weekdays through the end of the school year on Friday. They'll return to the cafe when the 2018-19 school year starts. The cafe is also open before shows and performances at The Strand Theater.
“It's mutually beneficial,” Carter said. “We get staffing to help us run the cafe. They get very valuable real world customer service experience … It genuinely is a real business they are helping to manage.”