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From beans to breakthroughs: How coffee empowers the disabled and homeless

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A group of Korean Americans is creating a new life for the underprivileged through making a cup of coffee.

The baristas at Seesaw Beans and Coffee, a popular coffee shop in Buena Park, are people with developmental disabilities. Seven young adults with autism or Down syndrome, who are certified baristas, make coffee alongside seven non-disabled employees.

Young adults with developmental disabilities make coffee at Seesaw Beans & Coffee. [Sangjin Kim, The Korea Daily]

If someone were to think it wouldn’t taste good, they’d be wrong. The cafĂ© serves specialty coffees awarded a score of more than 80 out of 100 and has a top rating of 4.9 on Yelp as well.

Sam Yoon, CEO of the nonprofit Seesaw Communities, opened the coffee shop in October last year to help adults with developmental disabilities find employment. Yoon, who used to work at the Korean American Special Education Center, saw the possibilities and potential in people with disabilities that everyone thought were unattainable.

“When I saw people with disabilities having to live their whole lives without having anything to do as adults, I thought, ‘Why do they have to live like that? I thought we should give them an opportunity for those who are willing to.”

Yongseok Lee (center), CEO of Casters Coffee representative and the employees who used to be homeless [Courtesy of Yongseok Lee]

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, however. Managing staff was even more of a difficulty than managing customers. Oftentimes they were slow to learn, forgetful, and unable to multitask.

But they had one thing that people without disabilities didn’t have, which was their desperation.

“They were often neglected and bullied at school and in the community all their lives. So it means a lot to them to come to work here because they are appreciated and recognized for the coffee they make,” said Yoon. “They work harder than anyone else,” he said.

Customers either do not know or do not seem to be bothered about the fact that people with disabilities work here. They would rather show encouragement to their baristas.

“We’ve been open for six months now, and when I see them doing everything from ordering to serving, I think, ‘There could be a miracle like this,'” said Yoon. “We’re currently running barista classes to train adults with developmental disabilities. We plan to open several coffee shops to create more jobs for them. Starting a bakery business in May or June is also in the works.”

Another Korean American is bringing dreams to the homeless through coffee. Yongseok Lee, 36, head of the nonprofit organization Street Company, started a coffee catering business in 2018 with homeless people he met in a city park in 2016.

Currently, he runs Casters Coffee, a coffee roasting company, after closing the coffee catering business. It is led by four homeless people who started as baristas together.

“Co-founder Marco, who was a homeless man, is now the general manager. He recently reunited with his family after more than a decade apart,” said Lee. Casters Coffee is currently supplying university hospitals, and using the profits to expand employment for homeless people.

Lee also provides basic vocational training to other homeless people, offering them the opportunity to join the Casters Coffee business.

The turnaround stories of the early members of Casters Coffee have spread by word of mouth, and more than 30 homeless people have passed through the training program.

“It’s very rewarding to see people who have been homeless for as long as 10 years and as short as three or four years get jobs, go to school, and engage in normal social activities,” Lee added.

“We recently received a grant from LA County and will start a hydroponic farming business later this year,” he said. “My goal is to expand social enterprises that could give hope to socially marginalized people like the homeless.”

BY SUAH JANG, HOONSIK WOO [jang.suah@koreadaily.com]

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