Lil E Coffee Café: A different approach to inclusive employment.

Special Olympic Alberta News

Lil E’s is on a journey to create 10,000 careers for young adults with intellectual disabilities, one coffee at a time.

By Sarah Spisak

When you walk up to the Lil E Coffee Café in downtown Calgary’s Ampersand Building, you’re bound to be greeted with a smile and leave with a great drink. You’ll also probably hear laughter and music. Lil E’s is a fun place to work, but it’s also so much more.

“Lil E is more than a cafe. We brew greatness by teaching life and employment skills to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” says Chelsea McEwen, General Manager of Lil E Coffee Café.

Lil E has a 12-to-18-month program meant to help young adults with disabilities learn new skills and confidence as they transition from school and other programs into their adult lives and the work force.

“We are a non-profit, coffee shop, and an employment skills graduation program. What we do is we sell really great coffee (partnered with Rosso Coffee Roasters) and have our employees work through our program to develop transferable work skills for their future endeavors.

“Our mission is to create 10,000 careers,” Chelsea says. “Our working program is individualized with how we’re helping our employees explore their talents. It’s a working environment that’s safe to make mistakes, learn lessons, ask questions, and develop skills.”

Lil E hires people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and was founded in 2021 by Paul Constance whose daughter, Ella, has Down syndrome.

“Ella is an outgoing, energetic growing 5-year-old,” Chelsea says. “She loves to dance at the store. She is expressive and social, clever, and humorous.

“She also knows she’ll be working at Lil E one day!”

According to a study sanctioned by Special Olympics, the unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is more than twice as high as those without disabilities.

By working with people who have disabilities and showing the world what they are capable of with the correct support, Lil E hopes to promote change to more inclusive employment practices and give those people the opportunity to contribute their rich talents to the workplace.

“The need for public education is much higher than what most people realize,” Chelsea says.

“A lot of our employees have invisible disabilities, and everyone’s needs are different. These individual needs and talents are integral to what we offer here.

“Our employees are successful because our environment allows them to learn at their own pace and thrive in their learning achievements. Those achievements will allow for a better transition into a chosen work field and we strive to create relationships with other companies who are able to see our employees’ talents and offer fitting roles within their companies to our graduates.”

“What’s exciting to me is to highlight their special skills that they’ve really honed in on,” Chelsea says.

“For example, someone who has previously struggled with math is now taking the initiative to ask to learn cash out and now is very confident and independent in completing this task. This is a skill they might never otherwise have had the opportunity to learn in a workplace.”

Lil E’s program is developed around learning and practicing individual skills that are tailored towards each employee. Different employees work on developing different skills and milestones throughout the program based on their own abilities, interests, and goals.

“We receive resumes all the time, though, it is a graduation program, and we are only able to properly support so many employees at a time and still ensure quality customer service,” Chelsea says. “We have a large number of people waiting to join us, and we are working on creating more opportunities to expand this program and open new stores across the country.”

Lil E currently has 10 part time employees with Down syndrome or Autism working at the downtown Calgary location and are opening up a second location in Toronto in Summer 2023 where they will be able to employ 15 more people. Until then, you can stop by Lil E Coffee Café in the Ampersand Building in Calgary Monday to Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and say hello to a few familiar faces from Special Olympics Alberta while grabbing a great beverage.