SPOKANE, Wash. — A program at Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane is giving students with disabilities the opportunity to learn valuable job and communication skills while brightening teachers' days.

Thunderbean Coffee began in 2017 and the teachers that help make the coffee are called baristas.

Melaina Cole, a special education and Thunderbean barista, said the program supports those students who will access supported living and employment in the future.

Cole and another teacher make the drinks with help from the owner of local business Gemelli Coffee Roasters, a Sacajawea parent who donated the coffee-making machine to the program. Twelve special education students then deliver coffee to teachers’ classrooms throughout the school every Wednesday and Friday.

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Thunderbeans Coffee program (Courtesy: Melaina Cole)

The Thunderbean program helps the students practice both money and customer service skills, while allowing them to find their interests and get involved in their community, Cole said.

“The statistics of adults with disabilities not being engaged in their community are really just alarming,” Cole said.

“Why do we go to work? We go to work to feel needed and fulfilled and to contribute to the community, and that’s kind of what we wanted to start here,” she continued.

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Thunderbeans Coffee program (Courtesy: Melaina Cole)

Another plus: Many of the teachers love coffee. More than 35 percent of the staff are ordering a drink every sale day, which makes for 20 to 30 coffee or specialty drinks, Cole said. The teachers even began tipping the students with erasers and pencils.

Thunderbean Coffee is funded through two grants worth $1,000 and $500 from the Spokane Schools Foundation. Pre-engineering students at the middle school also designed coffee sleeves and special cupholders using a 3-D printer.

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Thunderbeans Coffee program (Courtesy: Melaina Cole)