A Life Comes Full Circle
Former Simsbury Public Schools Inclusion Specialist Now a Customer of Her Students
When you stop into BeanZ & Co. you’ll often see Deb Cervas working or reading a book with a cup of tea, or meeting friends for lunch. She is well known by many as a regular in the coffee shop and café, as well as the former inclusion specialist at the Simsbury Public Schools. An educator who has dedicated her life to championing inclusive education for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), Deb along with BeanZ & Co. believes everyone belongs.
“BeanZ is a place I want to be a regular customer,” Deb says with a bright smile. “I started coming because I strongly believe in the mission and I know the owners and the staff, many of whom are former students. In large part my life has come full circle to be a customer of individuals I’ve known since they were in first grade, now as adults using the skills they worked so hard to develop in school.”
Deb’s passion for special education began early in her college career when she accepted a summer internship at a YMCA Camp for children with disabilities in Pittsburgh, PA. “I had no prior awareness of or experience with this community, but I thought, ‘Why not, kids are kids,’” explains Deb. “The next semester I changed my major from English to Special Education.”
Starting her career in the 1970s, Deb was at the forefront of a pivotal time of change in education. By the mid-70s, laws changed and all students, regardless of their disability, could attend public school. Many states responded by building separate schools. The problem with this approach was students with special needs lacked the connection and interaction with their typically developing classmates – and vice versa.
In the first 18 years of her career, Deb worked as a special education teacher in a range of restricted settings. Her first job was in a residential institution for “retarded” individuals, and her next job was in a special school for those with IDD. In 1986, Deb moved to Simsbury taking a role as a long-term sub with the Simsbury Public Schools where she ultimately was able to stay, initially teaching in a self-contained program.
“I really believe I needed experience early on in restricted educational settings to see what it was like for kids to be excluded,” Deb explains. “It made me angry. My persona is to question authority, practices, and the status quo. When I came to the Simsbury Public Schools, administrators trusted me to try things differently. I proposed that, rather than eating lunch in their classroom, my students with IDD should eat in the cafeteria with their typical peers. This led to inclusion in homerooms, specials, then academic classes.”
In the early 1990s, the Simsbury Public Schools were committed to adopting inclusion as a philosophy of the district and added an educator position as an inclusion specialist in 1994 – a role Deb proudly filled from 1996-2018. With this change, all students with IEPs returned to their neighborhood schools. “Special education is a service, not a place,” explains Deb. “Children with special needs now would receive special education services in their neighborhood school, not a centralized school. The model was different for all students. Some students needed more time in a special education setting, but it was offered to them in their neighborhood school.”
Under the direction of Department of Special Services Administrators, Deb worked in partnership with staff in all seven of the district schools from pre-school to high school. “Inclusion became the way we did business in the Simsbury Public Schools,” says Deb. “Classroom teachers and special education teachers formed collaborative ventures. We developed the philosophy that special education students not only would be physically and socially included, but academically and in extracurricular activities as well.”
This whole child, whole school approach was for the betterment of all students. “Our goal was optimum progress of each student, connecting kids with kids, and being sure all kids had full access to the entire school – from the playground, to classes, to after-school activities,” explains Deb. “We wanted to see all students together to the greatest extent possible. To eliminate the us vs. them dynamic.”
Similarly, Kim Morrison and Noelle Alix, co-founders of BeanZ & Co. created an inclusive employment environment where everyone belongs. At BeanZ & Co., typical employees work together with their peers with disabilities, using a 50/50 model, as the one-to-one friendship-based nonprofit Best Buddies International does. Half of BeanZ & Co. employees have IDD, the other half do not.
“Having typical individuals and individuals with IDD work alongside one another is life enriching for all,” says Noelle. “We all learn from one another, we all bring something of value. The BeanZ & Co. slogan ‘everyone belongs’ is not only what we believe, but also what we practice every day as employers. It’s the culture we’re nurturing in our employees that honestly happens so naturally here at BeanZ & Co.”
Deb witnesses these organic interactions often as a BeanZ & Co. customer. “I love the natural supports that exist here in addition to the job coaching. Employees are helping each other. They are naturally working side by side – not doing something for someone, but working with each other and helping each other. Having a place like BeanZ & Co. is such a model about the possibilities for meaningful employment for all.”
For Deb, BeanZ & Co. is also a powerful manifestation of her lifetime of work.
“I’m thrilled to see some of my former students being successful in using skills we taught them over the years: solid communications skills, age appropriate social skills, welcoming and positive interactions, and development of stamina academically, physically and socially. They are here and able to work a shift while staying focused, on task, and physically capable of the work. BeanZ & Co. is a big success story. I’m so proud of these former students.”
Deb is now semi-retired, but still working at what she loves in the school district she loves. And several days a week, she’s at BeanZ & Co. enjoying what she’s helped to create. “It’s emotional for me to see former students and other employees with IDD successfully employed. Things went well on their educational journey: they have a job, friends, and responsibilities. The social skills and instruction really worked. The families are remarkable, too, and the lifelong relationships I continue to have with them make my work especially meaningful. I am so fortunate my career took this path.”
Deb’s advice for students with IDD looking for work:
1. Work with your transition staff before you graduate – they are good resources for interview skills, for identifying the type of job that best suits your skills and interests, and helping to arrange internships or other job training experiences.
2. Don’t give up. Be persistent. Apply for jobs and go to interviews.
3. Take advantage of any rehabilitative services that are options for you to find employment, or temporary job coaching in your place of employment to help make a successful transition to a job.
4. You may be a student who needs to find a niche job to suit your unique skills and needs. Keep your eyes and ears open for this type of role.
Deb’s advice for employers looking to hire individuals with IDD:
1. Take the chance. You’re likely to find this potential employee will bring a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and a good potential to not only do the job, but do it well.
2. Be mindful of how your workplace can support the employee in a natural way.
3. Reach out to other employers to ask how they made a successful hire, what challenges they faced, and helpful strategies.
BeanZ & Co. is an inclusive coffee café employing people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities and demonstrates the possibilities in all of us. The coffee café serves breakfast, lunch, hot and cold beverages, and bakery items for take-out or eat in, and also offers catering services. BeanZ & Co. is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located at 300 West Main Street, Avon, Conn. For more information visit beanzandco.com and friend them on Facebook and Instagram.