Jillian is in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but it hasn't stopped her from cheerfully greeting customers the moment they enter the coffee shop Our Grounds in West Kendall. Perched at the cash register, she confidently processes customer transactions.
Diego Pereza is a barista. Shy but excited, he nervously adjusts his eyeglasses. “I love having the chance to make coffee and new friends every day,” he says. “It’s all about the customer experience, and so far, everyone is liking the different types of coffee that we have available.” He wasn’t much of a coffee drinker before starting this job, but now he enjoys at least one a day during his shift. "Being anxious in social settings has been tough for me, but I've been able to overcome it by being part of Our Grounds."
The café employs seven individuals between the ages of 19 and 28 with disabilities such as Down's syndrome and autism. For most, it's their first job. In addition to overcoming challenges they've faced their entire lives, they've successfully completed on-site training. Each trainee was given the option to take the barista or the front-of-the-house track during the program. Two overachievers requested to learn it all.
The shop's interior, painted a serene shade of teal and decorated with orchids, offers a few inviting tables. The café is located in an unassuming strip mall tucked inside the Crossings neighborhood. The sign isn’t up outside yet, but those who know what they’re looking for find the cozy café with plenty of personality. Our Grounds, operated by the nonprofit corporation of the same name, opened over a month ago.
"When it came to decorating, I stuck with what makes me comfortable and happy,” owner Vanessa Vila says. "I really wanted to create a space that felt like home for everyone who steps inside."
Vila always knew her life's purpose was to work with people with special needs. As the daughter of a teacher, she was often in situations where she needed patience and understanding. Vila fondly remembers the moment that set her on this path. "My mom was an elementary school teacher. I volunteered at her school and shadowed a child with muscular dystrophy. Helping him and watching him overcome obstacles while always having a smile on started my passion," she says with a smile.
Vila, who has more than 12 years of experience in the field of special education, grew increasingly aware of the high unemployment rate of those who had maxed out of the school system once they turned 22 years old. At that age, many of these individuals don't have access to the tools they need to transition into independent adulthood.
With the help of her husband, Eric Huertas, and his experience in the restaurant world (he owns the neighboring pizza shop, Local Pie), Vila decided the best way to help those with special needs was to give them a purpose and more than just assistance — a job where they could earn their own wages.
With assistance from family, friends, and a GoFundMe campaign, Vila opened Our Grounds July 9. Proceeds from the 501(c)(3) nonprofit coffee shop fund additional assistance for employees' necessities such as occupational therapy and transportation. Every dime the shop makes goes back to its seven workers.
The mission of Our Grounds is to provide a space for adolescents and adults with special needs to feel like they’re part of something. Vila is adamant that the coffee shop isn't hers, but theirs. "I want all of the Our Grounds employees to know the shop wouldn't exist without each and every one of them," she says. "I'm just here to help provide the resources, employment opportunity, and a nurturing environment for those putting in the work, but this is theirs just as much as it is mine."
A visit to the café always includes locally made coffee. The shop, which has partnered with Argyle Coffee Roasters of Fort Lauderdale, serves latte, cappuccino, espresso, double espresso, cortado, nitro cold brew, and regular American coffee priced between $2 and $5. Amy Miller, cofounder of Argyle, says her company knew instantly it wanted to get onboard with Our Grounds.
“It was a simple yes for us. My husband, Manny Carrera, and I founded Argyle in 2014,” Miller says. “We wanted something local worth drinking, and we pride ourselves on building relationships in the community.” For them, the biggest challenge and the most rewarding part was sourcing the right equipment for Our Grounds. “Figuring out what would be the best and easiest for each employee that would still showcase our coffee was a fun experience, because we didn’t want either partner to compromise their vision. We found a machine that worked well for the trainees and also brewed the coffee to our liking.” Miller says she thinks what’s being done at Our Grounds is brilliant and wishes more people would follow suit.
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Our Grounds also sources treats from local businesses. Options include Pretty Sweet's cookies and muffins ($3.50), Atelier Monnier's almond croissants ($2.55) and Amla by Pamela Wasabi's vegan and gluten-free celestial chocolate chip cookies ($3.75).
The new shop is eager to be part of Miami’s growing coffee scene. Its location in the middle of a residential neighborhood has already garnered a steady flow of regulars, many of whom have spread the word about the café on the app Nextdoor. Vila says the employees are appreciative of the slow start. “It’s incredible how much we’ve seen them all grow just over our first couple of weeks being open. A few of them are coming out of their shell and interacting more with the customers as they get used to seeing so many new faces each day. And we’ve got a couple who are becoming really interested in the coffee aspect and are constantly asking questions and wanting to know more,” she says proudly.
“I just want to foster a setting where these employees can grow and inspire others. I want them to know they can do it. And if I can show others that they can help in the same way, that’s an added bonus.”
Our Grounds. 10714 SW 113th Pl., Miami; 786-683-6704; ourgrounds.org. Tuesday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.