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  • Writer's pictureThe Hambrick Foundation

Special needs students' coffee shop grows with THF grant

The Wildcat Café at Central Junior High School is thriving, and its operators are looking to expand.

Special needs students at CJHS look forward to expanding coffee shop with grant funds.


The business at the East Peoria, Illinois school is led by teacher Gretchen Vance and staffed by her life skills students. CJHS employees receive order forms each week, place orders by Thursday and receive their caffeinated treats on Friday mornings.


“The cafe has been a huge hit with the staff, and we started expanding our offered items to included iced coffee by the end of the school year,” Vance said. “The demand is high for us to continue expanding our offerings.”


Vance and her students started the business during the 2022-23 school year with the help of funds from the school’s administration. They purchased a Keurig and basic supplies to get started.


“My students have special needs and are all unique in their abilities and skill sets,” she said. “I am always looking for new and unique ways to make learning fun, effective and meaningful to them. The opportunity came up about a year ago to help get our venture off the ground, so I took it and ran with it.”


Now, with funds from a THF grant, Vance plans to purchase machines specifically designed for iced coffees and smoothies, plus additional coffee makers to assist in the café’s efficiency. She will also add storage supplies, a rolling cart and other accessories to the business.


Along with the business’s success, Vance said the Wildcat Café has been an amazing learning opportunity for her students.


Special needs students at CJHS look forward to expanding coffee shop with grant funds.

“The students absolutely love the cafe and never complain about the work they are assigned,” Vance wrote in her grant application. “It has helped students who are introverted to learn to communicate and interact with others outside of their comfort zones. Students who are poor readers are learning to read the coffee pods, orders and documents sent each week. Students with poor math skills are learning to count money, make change and budget. There is literally a skill and job for every single student, so they all feel valued and actively engaged in the process.”


Students have realized other perks from their hard work. Any profit they make after purchasing supplies needed to keep the cafe running, are theirs to spend. In their first year in business, students used their earnings to order pizza, do some holiday shopping for their families and to fund a trip to the movie theater.   


“I can't describe the sense of pride and joy that was clearly evident on each of their faces, knowing they had earned their own money for fun experiences,” Vance added. “Many of my students aren't able to go out to eat or to see a movie with their families, so these things become even more meaningful.”

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