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Fairfax business works to create jobs for intellectually disabled people

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The woman’s holiday spirit was ebbing as she had had a long day shopping – long lines, stores that didn’t have the item wanted, not much time left to wrap things up.

She found herself in Fairfax Circle Shopping Center near Artie’s and noticed a small coffee shop new to the plaza: Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates.

Once inside the cheery shop, her cares melted away. Here was a group of young women and men happily greeting guests, taking orders and serving with a smile. A tall young lady was working the cash register as another woman gave assistance. The tall girl was Cameron Graham, the other woman was her mother.

Cameron is intellectually disabled and the idea for Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates was developed by her parents, Jim and Ellen Graham. Cameron was aging out of the special education program offered by Fairfax County Schools. Faced with that challenge, Jim and Ellen spent months researching opportunities to help their daughter build a future and maybe help other young men and women with cognitive challenges as well.

According to The Arc of the United States 2010 survey, (www.thearc.org), only 15% of the 7-8 million intellectually disabled people in the United States have a job and 80% do not have enough money for proper care.

“We want to build an environment to support young people with special needs who are just getting started after school,” Jim explained. “There are many, many good people in Northern Virginia who have given their time and resources to help our daughter and others. These kids can return the kindness as they become productive workers in the community.

With the help of many friends, the doors on this non-profit shop opened eight months ago and “things have really taken off.” They offer coffee, chocolates, bakery products and more. Cameron’s is open seven days a week and business is strong. They bake daily, offering chocolate chip cookies, muffins, scones and more. There are even gluten-friendly Fridays.

The underlying principle is to build a viable business with a great product. “People may come out to support what we’re doing, but they will keep coming back if they enjoy our products,” Graham reflected.

The shop currently employs four disabled workers with plans to double that number shortly. When asked about the perception of their work life, Jim replied, “People might underestimate how the disabled see themselves. These young people understand that they are making a product, and their paycheck is a function of their effort.”

On the day that the first paychecks were handed out, it was one of those “gotcha” moments when one dad said, “Do you appreciate the fact that this is the first time my 25-year-old child has received a paycheck? In fact we went to the bank, opened an account, and then my child took me out to lunch.”

Everyone has assigned tasks each day and if someone isn’t there for a day their absence is felt. Cameron does the Grab-and-Go, Maddie does the chocolate case, Tom is in charge of breaking down boxes and collecting the trash. These hard workers are assisted by Cindy, a parallel worker, and assistant store managers, Lydia and Justina.

Jim added, “It’s the same with every parent – their #1 hope is for their children to have independence, to be able to make it on their own. The parents of disabled children are no different. We got business cards for everyone. The first thing they do is hand folks their card and tell people to “come see us at the chocolate shop.” “

Learn more about Cameron’s on their Facebook page or their websites at CameronsChocolates.com and every1canwork.com. Better yet, when in Fairfax, stop in for coffee or chocolates. It will surely brighten your day.

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