“Through Park Café, our students are learning to take skills acquired in structured, small-group tasks and generalize the same skills into our whole school-wide community,” Melissa Kluck, speech pathologist  

For students in the Park Café program through Hudsonville School District’s Park Elementary, making coffee each morning is more than a daily routine. 

Park Café is a program established for children in cognitively impaired classrooms that gives students from kindergarten to second-grade a chance to work on their communication, teamwork and social skills - all by brewing some coffee.

On Mondays, students come together to follow recipes curated by teacher Rachel Hekman and speech pathologist Melissa Kluck. They measure out the ingredients, mix them together and create delicious coffee in two big pots. Then they head over to the Hudsonville District building, which is across the street, to sell the coffee to administrative employees.

“We work on communication by having the students ask the employees if they would like coffee, which helps them practice on their eye contact and social skills,” Rachel says. “We’re always looking for ways to bring their academic skills into real-life situations because applying them can be hard for them.”

Customers can pay with cash, which also gives students practice with making change and counting money. Students learn to recognize numbers, interact with unfamiliar faces, and reply appropriately when someone says “thank you.” 

Students significantly improve their social skills throughout the year, which is noticeable to Park Café’s most loyal customers. 

“I can think of one student in particular whose language skills and overall confidence has completely changed for the better,” Principal Brian Feld says. “We absolutely love this program.”

Melissa, who works with students daily on speech and language therapy, says one of the reasons the program works so well is because it helps students truly imagine their worlds in a bigger picture. 

“Through Park Cafe, our students are learning to take skills acquired in structured, small-group tasks and generalize the same skills into our whole school-wide community,” Melissa says. 

In addition to its educational impact, Park Café is also self-sufficient. All profits made from selling coffee are used for outings that further provide students with opportunities.

“Each month we go on an outing that broadens their world view,” Rachel says. “For instance, currently we are learning about dental health, so we connected with a dentist office so they can go and learn about some of the sights, smells and how to interact when you go there.”

Rachel says starting these interactions young is the best way to build the communities that these students will thrive in after they graduate high school and begin their adult lives. 

“Not only do these kids get excited to come to our building every Monday, but we look forward to seeing them too,” community education coordinator and frequent Park Café customer Rebecca Fabiano says. 

One of the most important components of the program is the support students have while they continue to challenge themselves. In this program, they get to learn alongside some of their biggest cheerleaders in all of Hudsonville community – their customers.

“We support the students in this office, but our superintendent, our curriculum, finance and human resource directors - you name it - all regularly buy coffee,” Brian says. “To see these smiling faces every time – it’s truly the highlight of our entire week.” 

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