GET Café Employs Disabled Community Members in Narberth

Photos by Tessa Marie Images

At Narberth’s GET Café, members of the Main Line’s disabled community serve up coffee, fresh juices and pastries.

Noah Weir loves the half-hour commute from his Havertown home to GET Café in Narberth. “It’s good exercise,” says his mother, Carina Ahren. “Plus, it’s downhill on the way back. Whether it snows or pours, he’s happy to ride his bike.”

It’s the distance Weir has come both personally and professionally that makes the most difference, exemplifying the purpose of the coffee shop where he works. The brick-and-mortar location stems from the nonprofit GETincluded Inc., which has become a safe haven for the disabled community it employs. The work of Wynnewood’s Brooke and Jon Goodspeed, who have a special-needs son, GET opened its doors a little over four years ago on Valentine’s Day, and it’s been pumping love, java, recognition and acceptance into the community ever since.

Weir, 20, is autistic and in his final year of eligible services at Haverford High School. He started volunteering at GET at 17. Within a few months, he was offered a paid shift. Not so reliant on support, Weir is verbal and functions on his own, but he needed a steady job and social skills. He also has high sensory sensitivity, and he wasn’t even sure he could be around the strong smell of coffee.

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GET Café employees
GET Café employees Leo Vernacchio, J.D. Daniels, Anel Guajardo Olivero, Claire Dalinka, Jonathan Sher, Adam Slater, Jimmy Mitchell, Victoria Goins and Ariana Bucciarelli.

At this point, Weir has done just about everything he can at GET, and he’s successfully trained as a barista. In fact, he’s so good at it that he could probably get a job at another restaurant or cafe. “Most importantly, he’s grown up,” his mother says. “He can handle more than we ever thought. He’s a lot better at figuring out what to do, and he feels like he’s capable. Many of those who receive therapies and have support classes end up knowing they’re the ones who aren’t able to do things. Here, they soon realize they’re not the problem anymore. It’s been life-changing for him.”

Ahern also volunteers for GET, largely managing online contacts and marketing. She swears by the Goodspeeds’ mission to normalize exposure to those with disabilities and eradicate traditional stigmas, as important a goal in March—National Disability Awareness Month—as at any other time of the year. “Customers here are usually not in a hurry,” she says. “It’s a more forgiving environment. If it takes 10 minutes to get your coffee and the proper change, it’s all good.”

The Goodspeeds’ middle child, Oliver, was born in 2010 between two neurotypical siblings: Elliott, 15, and Penny, 9. A Down syndrome baby, Oliver was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Nonverbal, he requires 24-hour supervision. “We were overwhelmed, to be honest,” his mother admits. “Even within the Down syndrome community, we felt like outsiders. Everywhere we went—story time at the library, art classes—it felt inaccessible, and that feeling never went away.”

Then city dwellers, the Goodspeeds moved to the suburbs to find a school system to better serve Oliver, who attends Saint Katherine School in Wynnewood. “But we found the same thing here,” says Goodspeed.

A longtime oncology nurse practitioner who spent years building connections in the medical community, Goodspeed found she couldn’t do the same for her child. “I felt blindsided,” she recalls.

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As she persisted, navigated the system and found resources, Goodspeed increasingly wanted to share her discoveries with other parents. “My background helped, but I’m also really stubborn,” she admits.

Owner Brooke Goodspeed with her son Oliver.
GET Café owner Brooke Goodspeed with her son Oliver.

The Goodspeeds first established GET as more of a community center. For the first two years, they gathered in a 500-square-foot room in Narberth before expanding to the current building on Haverford Avenue, which has three times the space. Half of it is for cooking and prep—a transparent classroom for training. All operations, including a sensory room in back, are visible.

Not every GET employee is disabled, but most of them typically are on a four-person shift. With upwards of 40 on the payroll, plus another 20 volunteers serving over 100 customers a day, the cafe is crowded. An even larger space might be another year away. “We function because our people show up to work—that’s what we’re most proud of,” says Goodspeed. “We see this as a big opportunity. We have a population that really wants to work.”

In the process of defending her doctoral dissertation in nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, Goodspeed is also busy leveraging the GET model to fill a void—or at least to study the role of the disabled in solving the nation’s employment crisis. The title of her dissertation: “The Impact of Employment on the Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being Among Transition-Age Youth with Autism.” Last May, she stepped down at the Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center to accept a position at Jefferson’s Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, where she sees patients ages 13 and up and conducts research on that population.

Jon Goodspeed has held mostly CFO positions, and he’s on the GETincluded board. “He’s rewarded in cappuccinos,” says Brooke, who serves as its executive director. “We’re mostly paid in a lot of love.”

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Long range, the next growth phase for GET may already be underway. The Goodspeeds are talking to one Fortune 500 company in Philadelphia about developing a pipeline for employees that could very well become a model for training others for the food-service industry. “It’s part of the research I want to do,” says Brooke. “Some of the most touching stories come from customers. Often, they’re having a bad day and need perspective on the world or to be grounded, so they patronize the cafe. The human struggle is very identifiable here, and it can connect people—but that’s what inclusion is.”

Prior to GET, Weir had done some pet sitting and volunteered at the local library. One summer, he was a counselor in training at the YMCA, but he didn’t get rehired—a decision connected to his needs, his mother says. Today, Weir is enrolled at Delaware County Technical High School in a biomedicine program with a lab technology focus, and he also takes classes at Delaware County Community College. If he finds an appropriate apprenticeship, he’ll probably move in that direction. But he’ll still work weekends at the cafe.

One disabled GET employee got a job across the way at Coco Thai Bistro in Narberth. Goodspeed sees that as a win. “The design model is that we don’t want them to work here forever,” she says.

Her son is only 12. In two years, he can begin volunteering, perhaps clearing tables. Training has begun at home, where Oliver is working on successfully taking his own plate from the table to the sink. “Me seeing other young adults thrive here provides tremendous hope for my son,” says Goodspeed. “I say, ‘That’s Oliver in 10 years,’ and it helps me get through.”

As for Goodspeed’s other kids: “They’re amazing not because of me, but because of Oliver—and from seeing so many of his challenges, and from exposure to others at the cafe,” she says. “They don’t see disability at all, and they’re shocked every place isn’t like GET Café.”

Visit getincluded.org.

Related: Autism Advocate Josh Stehle Shares a New Point of View

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