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SVHS Special Needs Students Gain Coffee House Experience at The Strand Theater

Apr 30, 2018 05:00PM ● Published by Jennifer Monahan

Every theater needs a good coffee shop nearby.

Ron Carter, president and executive director of The Strand Theater in Zelienople, has lost count of how many times people stopped him after a show to inquire about the best place to grab a cup of coffee. Until recently, however, such an after-hours café did not exist in Zelienople.

The Strand Café, which opened in February, is the most recent example of serendipity in The Strand Theater’s amazing journey. Constructed in 1914, The Strand closed its doors in the early 1980s and was destined for eventual demolition when Carter intervened in 2001. In a community with fewer than 4,500 people, Carter formed the nonprofit Strand Initiative and raised more than $2 million during the next eight years.

The organization purchased the building next to The Strand in 2004 with the eventual goal of expanding the theater. Since then, the group has rented out a small retail space to generate revenue for the theater’s operating costs. 

When The Strand’s most recent tenant moved on, the space was already designed as a coffee shop, and the nonprofit had a chance to purchase the tenant’s equipment. It was an opportunity too good to pass up, Carter said.

As a charity, The Strand Initiative operates with limited resources. Purchase of the café equipment left little funding to staff the café, Carter explained, and board member Jessica Kavanagh stepped forward with an idea.

The Strand had a pre-existing relationship with Seneca Valley High School’s Department of Special Education. As part of the school’s community-based vocational training program, students with special needs can gain work experience at the theater performing various tasks involving organization, light maintenance and cleaning.

Kavanagh was aware that Seneca Valley had an on-campus coffee shop also staffed by students in the district’s special education program. She suggested that assisting at The Strand Café might expand students’ vocational training opportunities. Carter reached out to his contacts at Seneca Valley, who were enthusiastic. 

Jerry Miller, director of special education for the school district, explained, “This is an awesome opportunity for students to take the logical next step to develop skills and be more independent.” 

The campus coffee shop has a limited menu and students work short shifts, Miller said. In contrast, The Strand Café offers a broad selection of beverages and bakery items typically found in specialty coffeehouses, and students might work a four to five-hour shift, operating in an authentic retail environment.

Teacher Jessica Pyle, the district’s special education transition coordinator, said student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “Students like the opportunity to expand their skill set and get out into the community,” Pyle said.

Carter described the partnership as a win for the theater, the students and the community.

The Strand Café is open from 8 a.m. until noon on Mondays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It opens two hours before live shows and an hour before movies, which allows patrons a comfortable location to gather before and after performances—answering a need that Carter has long wanted to address. 

Carter said that the students do an outstanding job of handling all aspects of the coffeehouse—making great coffee, following recipes, cleaning the equipment and running the cash register. “They keep the café in top operating condition as they serve the customers,” he said.

“It’s not just a typical café,” he added. “We can make anything a Starbucks can make, from loose leaf tea using a French press to gourmet coffee, but it’s done by our students with special needs.”

Customer feedback has also been positive. Students typically staff the morning shifts during school hours, with the biggest challenge being a lack of customers at that time. Both Miller and Carter hope that daytime foot traffic will improve as word gets out about the café.

When business is slow, Carter said, the students get frustrated. “When we have customers, the students are so excited to be able to help people—we divide up who gets to make and deliver the coffee, and who gets to run the register,” he explained, adding that the service is efficient and typically faster than waiting in line at a crowded coffee chain.

For more information, visit www.thestrandtheater.org, call 724-742-0400 or stop by The Strand Box Office and Café at 121 North Main Street in Zelienople. 

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