Many students think of a coffee shop as a perfect place to study, but for students in Ally Harder’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Program at Baldwin Street Middle School, it’s also an ideal place to learn important academic, social and life skills thanks to a community partnership with Biggby Coffee in Hudsonville.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder that affects human communication and behavior. A key focus for the Baldwin Street Middle School ASD program is getting students out into the community so they can learn the life skills required to be a valued community member throughout their life.

When Ally began working for the program, she thought about what types of learning experiences she wanted to provide for her students. She took advantage of the schools’ central location and called businesses within walking distance looking for community partners willing to open their doors to provide learning opportunities for her students. Hudsonville Biggby Coffee was one of those businesses. 

“Since I started this coffee shop, community is the biggest thing,” says Hudsonville Biggby Coffee Owner Tom Klotz. “And when I saw the middle school in our backyard, I thought, ‘How can I help? How can I be part of this?’”

Students were cautious at first walking into the coffee shop, but with Tom’s guidance, they grew over the years from hesitant to self-assured and now walk in and get right to work. The students started with cleaning tables and as their confidence and skills grew, so did their job responsibilities. Students now enjoy making and handing out coffee samples to customers and greeting people. These skills teach them how to interact with new people and be polite, which will help with future jobs when they graduate high school.

“These students are great. It’s so much fun having them here,” Tom says. “I learn a lot from them and what people really care about. I get more out of working with them than I think they will ever understand,” Tom says.

The program has expanded to include elementary school students with the goal of a high school program in the near future. According to Ally, expanding the program to provide more opportunities for more students benefits the students, their families, and the greater community.

“The community has been very receptive to the ASD program. A lot of businesses have teamed up with our classroom and that’s important to me and my students,” Ally says. These community partnerships bring awareness to what ASD students are capable of and currently doing in the community, and help students build skills that will make their adult lives more successful. And that’s invaluable for everyone.”

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