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Hugs and Mugs: Bringing life skills, love to VG schools

By Tony Hooker
It’s been said that great ideas can come from many sources.

Such is the case with Sondra Burwell’s Hugs and Mugs Cafe in her special education class at Villa Grove Elementary School. I recently caught up with Burwell, a VGHS graduate, to talk about where she came up with the idea, the value she sees in the project, and much more.

Can you tell me what the Hugs and Mugs Café is all about?
It started because my students needed a way to pay for things. We were practicing math all the time. We were doing money back and forth, but until you can really generalize it in the public and actually pay for things, it doesn’t set in. We thought about setting up something in the cafeteria, but everything is scanned there. There isn’t an actual exchange of money. I have to say that this isn’t an original idea. There are lots of schools that have coffee carts, but I saw it and I took it to Mrs. Jones, and she went with it. She actually funded it to begin with so the kids could count back money. From that, though, we’re also improving socialization and all-around acceptance. The teachers are talking to my students in front of their classes, so that their students are seeing how to communicate with my students. We have big plans for it! We’ve started out really small, with $.75 or $1 for water and coffee. We’re hoping to branch out where sometimes we might have muffin Mondays or Donuts on Fridays or something like that. Of course, we have to be careful and follow the protocol for allergies with that. What’s exciting for me is what we’re doing with the money that the kids make. Of course, we’re paying for the coffee and supplies, but any extra, the way the kids will be paid, is every month, we’re going to some place in the community, and they’ll get $10 bills and they’ll have to order something off the menu. They’ll have to stay within their budget. It’s kind of like one life skill teaching another, but until you’ve actually done it, it can’t be taught! I can sit here with a menu in front of them and tell them to order something, but until you actually do it, you don’t know if they’ve actually acquired the skill. 

How many of your students are participating?
Anyone who’s in my class can participate, we don’t exclude anyone, but there are six people who are mainly involved.

How have you been received by the school?
We go through a lot of coffee! <laughs> We have a lot of coffee drinkers in this school that buy regularly, and the kids love seeing their smiles. This wouldn’t work if we didn’t have a lot of teachers putting the “yes, please” on their doors in the morning.

Is this in between classes, or how does it work?
It’s every day. A lot of schools have said they didn’t like doing it daily, but we’ve had great success. We do it right when they come in, so it’s sort of a transition thing. They come in, they unpack and then some of them do coffee cart. They have an actual job schedule, so some of them only work on Mondays, some on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We start around 8:15 and we’re usually done by 9:30, but there are different shifts. For the ones that have P.E., my seventh graders, they’ll do a real quick shift and just do the high school. They’ll come in and take the cart to the high school and then when they come back they go to P.E. The next shift will come on and do this (4th-6th grade) hallway, and then they’ll hand off and the next shift will do pre-school all the way to Ms. Cardiff’s room. So, we have three shifts, with two or three students per shift. I do have a couple of high schoolers who used to be my students who come down to see me and to practice the skill, as well.

Before we go any further, I guess we should clarify a bit. What is your role here at Villa Grove School?

I’m a special education teacher.

You grew up in Villa Grove?
I did. 

When did you graduate?
Do I have to answer that? <laughs> I graduated in ’97.  

You didn’t go to college right out of high school, right?
I didn’t. Life happened. I got my associate’s at Parkland right after high school and then needed that one year off that turned into ten. <smiles> I had some kids, had some life experiences before I went back and finished. I actually finished my degree while I was working as an aide, here at Villa Grove.

Where did you finish your degree?
I finished it online at Grand Canyon University while I worked full time.  

Do you see a need or an opportunity for this to expand?
I hope so. I hope that this is just a little part of it and that we can build something bigger in the high school, because it’s so important to practice those job training skills. Without them, how can they be prepared for the world? You can only practice so much in a segregated environment. You have to be able to go out there and start it. Like I said, the more skills these kids develop, the more they’ll be able to use them in a job. We all want to be active citizens. That’s our goal in life is to be active citizens. Every one of them has that potential. They just have to develop the skills.

Can you walk me through the daily process?
At the end of the day, they set the timer on the coffee pot so that it begins to brew at 7:30 the next morning. When they come in at 8 o’clock, I have one student who is here first thing at 8 every morning, he measures it out and starts the next pot, and the two or three students who have first shift will take off with the cart. The teachers have two cards on their door, either a “yes, please” or a “no thank you” and so the students know that if it says yes, they are to knock on the door and come into the classroom. The teacher will tell them if they want coffee or water and they’ll take the money and make change. The kids do absolutely everything. A couple of them need reminders about what they should ask, like “would you like sugar”, and that sort of thing, but we’re in week four and most of the kids could probably do it without an aide going with them. We do have an aide who goes with them, we never let them go without an adult, but the adult doesn’t do anything.

The entire interaction with the teacher, taking their order, making change is giving them the opportunity to learn that skill?
Exactly. Giving them the socialization skills, customer service relationships, really. Some people are scared to talk with kids who are “different’ than them, even though everyone in the world is “different” and so seeing a teacher interact with my students teaches them how to interact.  

So, students can’t buy coffee?
No coffee to students, sorry! <smiles> We do have a punch card, so if you buy nine, you get the tenth one free. The kids have the responsibility of remembering to punch the card. It works with fine motor skills as well. There are a lot of “learning” things that are a part of this. 

At the other end of it, they’ll be learning how to make purchases and budget their money?

We have money Monday. Every Monday, during Math class, we do nothing but work on money because money is so important, and we have to work on it so much. We have to teach them to manage their money or they’ll have a hard time in life. Everyone has different jobs, but some of my higher-level students actually make the deposit. Of course, I check it, but their job on Mondays is to make the weekly deposit. They have their own deposit slips, they each fill it out and then we see who’s right, and then I fill out the master slip. They have to count it and put it in the blue bank bag and take it to the office and turn it in.  

How old are your students?
I have from fourth grade all the way up to ninth grade. 

What sort of expansion ideas do you have? Can you share them?

Right now, all we’re thinking about doing is adding to the cart. We want to save enough money to purchase a Keurig because we have a lot of teachers who are wanting specialty coffees. I don’t drink coffee, so I would like to see tea, but the only way we could do it would be with a Keurig and specialty drinks.  

Maybe you’ll do lunches to go, someday?
I’ve had so many people from the community asking about it, so I’m playing with an idea of having a drive through once a month, but that will take a lot of planning. I don’t want this to be teacher driven, it has to be student driven. I’m working with different ideas of how we could make that work.

Do you have anything to add?
As we talked about before when you did the special Olympics story, my main goal is to increase awareness. People should know that the true structure of this is that it is run by the kids so that they can learn all those skills they need to become active citizens.

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