Creating a welcoming atmosphere for both people with disabilities and non-disabled people is at the heart of a new Ypsilanti Township business, Work & Play Cafe
Founders Steve and Amy Berg, a married couple, grew the cafe idea from their previous entrepreneurial venture, Skill & Ability Education
(SAE), which works with referrals from the state of Michigan to help people with disabilities develop work skills and gain employment. The cafe will provide work opportunities for SAE clients, as well as an atmosphere where a diverse range of people can feel welcome to grab coffee or a locally made pastry, check their email, or play games with buddies. The Bergs held an open house Feb. 25 to allow the public to check out the space at 444 N. Hewitt Rd., and the official opening date is March 17.
Amy & Steve Berg at Work & Play Café.
The business includes a cafe with food and drink; a game room with foosball and a video game system; a playroom for children, including an arts and crafts nook; and a work space with laptops, wifi, and printers.
A free membership allows access to the cafe, work room, game room, play room, and limited free printing. Higher-tier memberships include free merchandise like T-shirts or mugs, as well as discounts on drinks.
Steve Berg says he and his wife have been brainstorming ways to connect with the community about the idea of inclusion.
"Working with our client base, we get to see those individuals' strengths and challenges, the ways they are connected with the community and the way they aren't connected," he says. "Some of them don't necessarily have those connections they're longing for. We thought maybe we could create a safe, comfortable place that helps provide that spot for our current or former clients to be understood for all their greatness. It'd also be a great opportunity for the community to learn more about inclusion and see people with disabilities work within our Work & Play Cafe."
Making sure everyone has opportunities for work and leisure
Before starting SAE about four years ago, Steve Berg was working as a special education teacher, while Amy Berg was a school social worker. While working in education, they learned about Michigan Rehabilitation Services
, a state program that offers workplace employment and education-related services and training for teens and adults with disabilities.
"We thought it was cool, the way they were working with students outside of the box of the educational system to help students put to use or learn skills necessary to be successful in an employment situation," Steve Berg says. "It seemed like a good service and something we had the background to be successful in doing."
They formed an LLC, with Steve providing the services at first. Clients are placed in various local companies to gain work experience over a few weeks or months, much like a paid internship. Occasionally, a company ends up hiring a client permanently, but if not, SAE can help with interview skills and help clients secure and maintain employment.
After a few months, it became apparent that the business would take off, so Amy Berg quit her job to begin working at SAE as well. She says she not only developed a professional interest in the topic of disability inclusion, but she also has a personal interest. She and her husband adopted three boys, all with special needs, and she has other family members and friends with disabilities.
"I think they really have a lot of things to offer, a lot of strengths," she says. "I want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to access work and leisure or friendship, all the things that allow us to feel fulfilled."
Jesse Lindlbauer, Da'Vian Countee, and Sam Miller at Work & Play Café
Steve Berg says SAE has grown steadily over the last four years. It now employs eight full-time staff members and a number of contingent staff who help clients with coaching on the job. SAE currently serves about 70 clients at any one time, and as many as 200 clients in the course of a year.
Jeromie Ortiz, talent acquisition manager for Busch's Fresh Food Market, says SAE has been "a great community partner."
"They use our stores for placement for their clients to get them work experience and socialization," Ortiz says. "It's good exposure for us, and it gives us the ability to give back to the community at the same time."
Ortiz estimates about five SAE clients are interning in Busch's stores around the region right now, and a handful of SAE clients have been hired for full- or part-time jobs. He says he thinks the concept of offering SAE clients opportunities to gain work experience at Work & Play Cafe is "fantastic."
In 2020, the Bergs had been discussing the idea of the Work & Play Cafe for a few years when they noticed a vacancy opening at 444 N. Hewitt Rd., two doors down from SAE in the same plaza. The space was small and affordable, and Steve Berg says it felt like "a good place to start with this idea."
"This project has been two years in the making, because we took this space right as COVID was starting," he says.
In the meantime, the Bergs have been using the space occasionally for workshops or as a space for their three sons to attend school virtually. They are eager to open the space to the public this month, though.
When asked why inclusion is so important to the business, Steve Berg says, "Why not?"
"Everybody should be more inclusive," he says. "Our three sons are wonderful young guys. We want them to grow up in a world where they feel accepted and understood. We want the school system and the community to see the greatness they have in them, how they use their strengths and challenges to live wonderful, fulfilling lives. It's something to feel good about both professionally and personally, all the great things inclusion can bring not just to individuals but to businesses and organizations."
Megan and Jake Brown with their son Aycen at Work & Play Café.
Amy Berg says many people think about inclusion through the lens of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the concept of inclusion in schools through practices like individualized education programs.
"But the idea of belonging is beyond that," she says. "Inclusion means you feel valued and respected. We want the cafe to be a place anyone can go and feel included, to feel they are accepted and that they belong."
She says inclusion should be about celebrating differences.
"We don't have to make everybody fit into the same box or pretend differences don't exist. It's not something we need to fix or correct," Amy Berg says. "At Work & Play Cafe, we're celebrating the idea that everyone is different, and that's a good thing."
More information about Work & Play Cafe is available here
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.