A Very Special Barista

14 12 2009

This is truly an extraordinary of story of someone born with a defect but, through opportunity and training, she was able to work as a trained barista at Em and Jerri’s Coffee Company. Written by Gina Palandri of Espresso Partners.

Em steaming milk.

I had the pleasure of meeting Em about a month ago, after she was referred to us by Kevin Kapaun of Specialty Java, a local Minnesota roaster. Em came to Espresso Partners’ Minnesota training facility, accompanied by her job coach Jerri Reisner, and her mother Tami. This would be their first barista training, and would unknowingly end as one of my most rewarding.

Em was born with a congenital birth defect, called Agenesis of the Corpus Collosum. The corpus collosum is the fibrous tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. It is basically the “train station”, where all of the electrical impulses of the brain pass through. When Em was born, her parents were told to institutionalize her, as she would not be able to walk, talk, sit up, or function in general. It was soon learned, that repetition and routine were the keys to assist Em in her every day functions and tasks.

Em’s parents, long time small business owners in their town, along with some other members of the community, decided  that the town  needed a coffee house. The town’s economy was ripe, for a new small business that would allow people to have a great place to meet, as well as a place to have an awesome cup of coffee. They decided that this could be an amazing opportunity for Em, who most recently was employed by the Goodwill Industries in Independence, IA, to become a barista and an entrepreneur.  Jerri Reisner, Em’s job coach was to be a partner in this venture.

Em has two job coaches, who have worked with her and supported her, in this new adventure into the galaxy of the coffee community. She is getting assistance from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation, and the State of Iowa Work Force Development has taken a special interest in Em. They have contracted with the University of Iowa to film her, as they are doing a documentary on self-employment for adults with special needs.

When we began, I had no idea what a barista training program for special needs young adults, would entail. But as we moved forward, a lot of great tools were thought up. Utilizing the automatic and efficient design of the La Marzocco Swift grinder, we placed bright orange dots of paint to help line up the portafilter with the grinder collar. Similar dots were also used on the groups of a La Marzocco Linea.

Audible clues, like an almost “growl”, were emphasized to teach the tightness of the portafilter when it is properly placed firmly in the group head. Using the automatic, volumetric touch pads on the Linea, we created a system that matched each drink size to a particular button.

Initially, Em’s parents were a little nervous about her steaming milk. But after coming up with a tight procedure of milk sounds, smaller frothing pitchers, and larger faced thermometers, we practiced and practiced until she finally nailed it. Fabulous flash cards were designed by Em’s job coach Jerri Reisner, with pictures, the “words” and descriptions.  The great flash cards are used for memorization.  Some day, I imagine that latte art will be a possibility.

Currently, the staff at the coffee house includes Em, her two job coaches, and a few other special needs young adults. One of the great benefits to her staff is that they are all paid minimum wage, instead of the $1.50- $5.00 that they could possibly be making at other employment opportunities in town.

After leaving there last week after another on site training, I saw Em making mochas, lattes, and pouring coffee.  I left Em & Jerri’s Coffee Company realizing that anything is possible on this planet earth.

Follow Em on Facebook @Em and Jerri’s Coffee Company




9 responses

14 12 2009
Sarah Allen

Really great story, Gina! Thank you for sharing your experience—Em sounds truly remarkable.

14 12 2009
A Truly Remarkable Barista at pasteboard

[…] today, and I’m so glad I did! Gina Palandri of Espresso Partners wrote the most wonderful story about her encounter with a barista named Em. This is Em. Photo borrowed from La Marzocco's […]

15 12 2009
Gina P.

I am still gleaming from watching Em make lattes.
Thanks you guys at LM USA for posting this!


15 12 2009
Denise Birckbichler

Gina , what a wonderful story and what patience and kindness and hope you have given to this girl and her family. She has a career and accomplishments now..She has you to thank!!

15 12 2009

Wow…I’m speechless Gina. What a beautiful young woman, and what am amazing family she has. Her community is pretty incredible as well. My heart wants to explode from all the caring and love. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story Gina P. aka coffee guru rock star.

dcocoa puff crunch

16 12 2009

aww such an inspiring story! i’m so touched. =)

16 12 2009
Barista Kurs

A great story, about a truly great person with great people around her.

17 12 2009
Kevin Kapaun

Let me just say this example of going more than the extra mile, is simply, who Gina Palandri is. Espresso Partners is fortunate to have her on their team.

1 01 2010

Thanx for the news!

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