Sam Myers was born 24 years ago, a lively newborn doing what newborns do. Eighteen months later, mom Jennifer Myers noticed that Sam was not progressing verbally the way he should. She wondered what was happening and started to investigate…and from that moment on became a fierce advocate for her son. Sam was diagnosed with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the loss of language abilities and sleeping seizure activity. Sam’s neurologist put Sam on the autism spectrum. But that didn’t stop Jennifer — or Sam!
Sam attended the Harbour School of Baltimore, a Maryland nonpublic special education school for children in grades 1 through 12 that provides individualized education to students with learning disabilities, autism, speech and language impairments, and other disabilities. Sam graduated at the age of 21 with his high school diploma. And Jennifer — and dad Michael — continued to advocate for their son. As Michael says, “Jennifer is a fierce advocate for Sam. She always worked for Sam to have the most complete, fulfilling, and independent life he could have, including work, if possible.”
But what type of work? And where would he work? Sam could do many tasks, but finding the right fit for him was a challenge. Sam underwent genetic testing and was re-diagnosed with Smith-Magenis Syndrome, an even rarer disorder determined by a missing chromosome. Although Sam had a new underlying diagnosis, he continued to present with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sadly, most support services end when a young adult with autism exits the school system. Sam’s parents turned to Itineris, a nonprofit that serves 70 Baltimore adults with ASD. Sam was accepted and became a client.
One of the main goals of Itineris is to create “customized employment” opportunities for its clients. The organization builds relationships between employers and employees by matching an individual’s unique skills to the needs of the employer. The approach encourages working interviews or trial shifts to highlight an individual’s strengths.
Sam tried several options as part of the Itineris program. He started working as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, helping to spackle and sand wallboard. He helped to deliver meals with Moveable Feast. And he participated in a job sampling program at the campus of Towson State University that included a stint in Towson’s computer re-formatting lab. But while Sam is very good with computers, “That was boring!” he said. What he did like was working in Dining Services, meeting and interfacing with people in the cafeteria as he helped bake cookies, sort cutlery, and bus trays. Jennifer started thinking about a restaurant business where Sam could work. She wondered, “How can we be sure it will be a great environment for Sam?” The answer: Own the business!
Michael had been waiting to find the right formula for his son. An investment professional, he was no stranger to the idea of owning a business. His parents — Sam’s grandparents — owned and ran a summer camp in Maine. Sam’s great grandfather, Israel Myers, founded the Londontown Manufacturing Company, now known as London Fog, purveyor of men’s and women’s trench coats, raincoats, and jackets. When Sam showed interest in and talent for restaurant work, Michael went into launch mode, looking to start or buy a small coffee shop where Sam could use his restaurant skills and his love of people.
However, more important than the shop or place was the right person to launch and run it. That person had to understand that creating a great place for Sam to have meaningful work was at the heart of everything.
Over dinner in October 2015, Michael and Jennifer had a proposal for one of their dearest friends, Elli Straus, who had known Sam most of his life. With a background in teaching as well as experience in the nonprofit world with the March of Dimes and with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Maryland, Elli was looking for her next job to help people. But a coffee shop? With special needs employees? From scratch? It was a stretch. But her love for Sam won out. Elli said yes.
The last year has been a whirlwind of activity for Michael, Elli, and restaurant consultant Henry Pertman, who was brought in to bring restaurant experience and know-how. First, finding the right space for a coffee shop. It had to be close to Itineris, with the right amount of foot traffic, and clients who would bring a neighborhood feel — where everybody “knows your name,” so to speak. “We want to know the guests and for the guests to know the employees,” Elli says. Michael put in a bid on an existing cafe in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. “Sam’s Canterbury Cafe” was born. And once the location was found, the scale grew from a small coffee shop to a full café serving breakfast and lunch. Once the size and scale grew, Michael, Jennifer, and Elli realized the Café could provide a place for other adults with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to work.
Elli designed the space, using the same cool and calming colors found in the Itineris space. She bought equipment, furniture, dishes, and food items, hired a daily manager and a staff of 15. During orientation, the staff members underwent awareness training so they would know, for example, that humor, body language, and information can be processed quite differently by those with ASD. “It’s one thing to have a job,” Elli says, “It’s quite another thing to have something meaningful and be part of a meaningful team.”
Eventually, Michael plans to bring in at least six employees who are on the autism spectrum to work in the space. As he says, “Sam’s Canterbury Cafe is not designed as a place for special needs adults to work. It’s a special place where adults with special needs happen to work.”
And Sam? He loves going to work at the restaurant. He will prepare food trays, organize napkins and silverware, and most importantly, greet guests. Sam already refers to it as “ My Café!” Thanks to his parents and many, many others who helped along the way, this is truly “a place for Sam.”
Are you interested …
in employing an adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and learning how these special adults can benefit your Baltimore business? Please contact Katie Verster at Itineris at 443-275-1100. Or visit the organization’s website at www.itinerisbaltimore.org and look under “Partnerships.”