The line begins forming about 3 o’clock every afternoon, just a few minutes after school lets out across the Denair Unified School District. One by one, thirsty middle school and high school students add to the queue, which snakes a dozen or more teenagers deep just outside the district office.
It’s time to caffeinate. And there is no better place than the Coyote Cups of Kindness coffee cart, operated by 13 special education students who are part of the Project Life program at Denair High School.
The Project Life curriculum was developed in 2007 in Ohio and has been proven across the country. Denair brought it to the district last year as part of a new approach to special education. The goal is to teach important life skills to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who often are dismissed as unemployable.
The coffee cart – which debuted in November 2018 – has become a big part of Project Life and, in many ways, the face of the program.
“We joke around that we’re famous,” said Renee Hall, the lead special education teacher at Denair High. “I was signing up my son for Little League in Turlock and a woman asked me, ‘Aren’t you the one who runs Project Life?’ ”
How popular is the Coyote Cups of Kindness coffee cart? It has its own Facebook page with 542 likes and an Instagram page with 973 followers. On a typical day, the students make more than 100 drinks during the afternoon rush alone. In the morning, parents dropping off their children have become regular customers. An app developed this year allows teachers and other staff members to place orders remotely; students then deliver them at the times requested.
The menu also has expanded. In addition to hot and cold flavored coffee drinks, it now includes chips, Kind bars and pretzels made by Hall’s class. Gift cards are available and customers can buy T-shirts with the Coyote Cups of Kindness logo on them.
The cart is a fixture at home football games at Friday nights in the fall, will be at this week’s boys basketball playoff game, the Relay for Life event in May and likely will have a space at the Denair Farm and Family Festival in September.
“People are so positive about the impact we’re having on the kids,” said paraprofessional Destiny Silva, who came up with Coyote Cups of Kindness concept two years ago. She is known now as the coffee cart coordinator.
“It’s not about the coffee,” Silva said. “It’s about the kids. Each student is different. They all have different capabilities and challenges to work around.”
The cart is open Monday through Thursday from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., then from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On Fridays, the hours are 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Since it is the only coffee cart in Denair, the public is always welcome to stop by, order a drink or snack, and say, “Hi.”
“This entire district and the community have embraced this population,” Hall said of her special education class. “They have been so welcoming of these students.”
Students typically work a 90-minute shift at the coffee cart. Not only do they learn to create a variety of drinks, they also must handle the cash register and make change, clean the equipment, dispose of trash and keep track of inventory.
Those tasks are all important, but they’re not the main objective.
“The biggest skill is social,” Silva explained. “If you don’t know how to communicate, you won’t know how to get a job. That’s so important. They have to learn how to ask for help when they need it. To go on deliveries and learn what’s appropriate to say.”
Learning skills that will allow the students to potentially lead more independent lives is at the heart of Project Life. And while the coffee cart may be the most visible aspect, it’s not the only job opportunity. Students also work at Lulu’s Ice Cream Shop, Willie’s Pizza & Wings, Turlock Feed, the Denair Food Market, Bonander Trucking and Small Town Genetics. In addition, they help the school district’s maintenance staff and assist with the recycling program at Denair Elementary Charter Academy.
“Our students have been taught social skills, career skills and customer service skills,” said Denair High Principal Kara Backman. “I am proud to say that our special education staff always put students and family first to ensure they are 100% employable.” Added Silva: “It’s about breaking down barriers and assumptions. The coffee cart has helped create more acceptance and understanding in the community. If you’re not in it or around it, you don’t really understand it until you open your heart.”