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'Coffee with a Cause' | Lenoir City coffee shop trains teens with disabilities to be baristas

A new coffee shop in Lenoir City aims to be a learning lab for teens with Down syndrome and autism to get job experience.

LENOIR CITY, Tenn. —  At Riverside Coffee Shop in Lenoir City, there's no one more eager to take customers' orders than Tristan Lee.

"I love to make people drinks and get them happy," he said.

He makes sure they are happy just like he is while working his dream job.

"When I asked Tristan, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'I want to work at Starbucks,'" said Angela Lee, Tristan's mom.

Riverside Coffee Shop isn't Starbucks, but it's close enough. Plus, it serves as a training ground for this budding barista.

"My son Tristan was born with Down syndrome," said Angela. "There weren't very many opportunities that I could find for him."

Angela said closures related to COVID-19 took a big toll on Tristan.

"He went from having many, many activities within school and outside of school, to his entire world being shut down," she said. "It was extremely unhealthy. He was sitting in his room for most of the day. I decided that I need to be working with my own son."

Posted by Riverside Coffee Shop on Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Angela has her master's degree in special education, and is a certified behavior analyst. She opened Riverside Coffee as a nonprofit to help other teens with Down syndrome or autism get work experience.

She said a coffee shop is the perfect training ground.

"You can break everything down into doable pieces," she said. "So one person can be stamping bags and folding napkins, one person can be prepping the hot food items."

Tristan is her first learner, but she hopes to enroll more teens in her new vocational training day program.

"Our meaningful day program is going to include things like healthy living, healthy cooking, how to follow a recipe, how to advocate for yourself," she said.

Almost everything in the shop is donated, including the building itself. Proceeds from sales will go toward this training program.

Angela also said she will use her background in applied behavior analysis to help kids of any range of ability get used to a working environment.

"These kids are getting fired for, for example, getting overwhelmed because too many supervisors are giving them directions at the same time," she said. "This is something that could be such an easy fix with some minor support."

Angela is ready to be that advocate, whether it's for Tristan or any other young adult trying to make it in the workforce. nAnd she said for many, it can start at the coffee shop.

"As you're going through the learning process, you would be spending some time over in the coffee shop area. And then as you progress, I would love to hire you. Or if you choose to take your skills elsewhere, then I would go and support you in your new environment," Angela said.

As a mom, she's happy to see her son thriving.

As an employee, Tristan, 20, likes his role as boss of the place.

"I help people get their drinks. Get some food," he said. "I make coffee, hot chocolate, and iced tea, hot tea."

Tristan's sister gives him the coffee orders and he takes it from there. He's the first of what Angela hopes will be a line of baristas who will bring a special twist to service.

"I want it to be the environment of 'yes,' not the environment of 'no,'" she said.

Riverside Coffee Shop is now open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 16239 Hwy 70 E. in Lenoir City.

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