There was a knock on the classroom door and the next thing Kim Blanton saw was a steaming cup of hot chocolate and the smiling face of Jesse Allen.
“I like seeing you guys — it makes my day,” Blanton said, taking her first sip.
“This is a good thing. It keeps me awake.”
Blanton, a math teacher, is one of about 30 staffers at Russell Middle School who get a morning jump start courtesy of the school’s students with special needs.
The students make and deliver coffee and other beverages each morning, trundling down the halls with a shiny chrome-plated cart laden with pots and cups. They call themselves the Brew Crew, and they wear snazzy red aprons with custom-made logos to prove it.
By 8 a.m. Wednesday, they had started their route. Besides Jesse, who is 13, there was Jamie Schmidt, Nicole Rose and Kristen Stapleton, all 14. Making their way around the first floor, the students passed out cups of regular, decaf and hot chocolate, adding sweeteners and creamer as requested.
They’ve been at it long enough they know their customers and their preferences by now; in many cases they don’t have to ask before pouring.
Accompanying them on their morning rounds, their teacher, Jennifer Hogg, prompts them if she needs to — but usually she doesn’t need to. And that makes her proud.
“They’ve grown so much. You should have seen them the first day. Every step of the process had to be verbally prompted,” Hogg said.
“Now they’ve memorized the orders and they jump to fill them.”
Hogg got a grant from the Russell Education Foundation and started the coffee service to give her students practice in social skills and the kinds of everyday activities they’ll need as adults. They prepare the service in the afternoon, loading the pots, making sure the cups are clean and there’s enough sugar and creamer.
In the morning, Hogg pours in the water and once the java is brewed transfers it into insulated jugs. After they’ve poured the last cup, they return to their classroom, wash the cups and fold their aprons neatly.
Hogg has seen significant improvements in their social skills and confidence. At first, the students were painfully shy. Nicole demonstrated for a visitor Wednesday how she approached her customers in those early days, head down, shoulders hunched, eyes averted.
Now she and the others step right up to the teachers and serve them cheerfully. “There’s been a huge change in their confidence. They feel better when they talk to an adult,” Hogg said.
The adults feel better too. “It starts our day off in a really good way,” said Michelle Gillum, an aide, brandishing her usual cup of regular coffee with vanilla creamer.
“It’s a really good thing they’re doing.”
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.