Special needs ‘Jesus Prom’ led to coffee house with 50 ‘handi-capable’ employees

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By Brandon Chu —

First he staged a prom for special needs people at his church. Now, he’s opened a coffee shop staffed by special needs employees.

Retired Pastor Brewster McLeod of Lexington, Kentucky, opened McLeod’s Coffee House in 2019. The coffee shop is a non profit with 50 employees who happen to have autism and developmental disabilities.

“They got joy, they got heart, they want to work,” McLeod said.

The purpose for the special coffee house is twofold: to give an income to people who might find it hard to get another job, AND to sensitize regular folk to their needs.

“If Down syndrome or special needs make you nervous,” McLeod says, “you probably need to come in here and relax and just treat them like anyone else.”

Megan Gaines, 29, works the cash register. She was born with spina bifida, which paralyzes her from the waist down.

“I’m exactly like anybody else. I can do the same things you can do. I just may do things differently,” Megan says. “We still want to have friends, we still want to do things, we still want to go out and hang out with our friends, and just do normal stuff.”

Working at McLeod’s Coffee has brought joy and safety to the 50 employees, whom McLeod calls “VIPs.” They wear super hero T-shirts to work as part of their uniform. McLeod says they’re “handi-capable.” Some are greeters, others baristas, others work the cash register.

McLeod was pastor of the Southland Christian Church in Lexington for 40 years. Since 2000, he’s ministered specifically to people with special needs. He held a “Jesus prom” for people with special needs because they felt excluded from regular Cinderella-like events.

McLeod’s offers everything from coffee and hot chocolate to donuts.

The ultimate goal is to “give them a job and an opportunity to do something they can thrive in,” says Amy Thornberry, communications director of McLeod’s. The experience inside is 100% about connections Coffee brings people together and allows for a cozy, quiet atmosphere.

While VIPs will work primarily in the coffee shop, they will have the flexibility to do outsourced work for nearby businesses who want extra helps. McLeod’s hope is that by seeing their capabilities, employers will take the opportunity to borrow them even if it is only for a couple hours a week.

“Through 20 years of experience Brewster has learned how to effectively advocate for this group of people. He has a servant’s heart. He wants to help these people,” said Megan Russell of Bluegrass ADD. “People with special needs are not always valued in the workforce.”

McLeod shared his love to his employees and their community: “I don’t do it for that pat on the back because that can be very addicting. I do it because I really care about them and I know that they are gifted, I just want them to know they have great value.”

Brandon Chu studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.