The Red Corner Café is serving up coffees and treats at Wilson Intermediate School in Pekin as part of an effort to teach special education students real-world skills.

Jackie Gray wanted to find a way to teach her self-contained special education students real-world skills while meeting the curriculum in the Community Based Instruction (CBI) program. After teaching for 23 years, with 16 of those years having been at Wilson, Gray was ready to try something new.

Over spring break in 2015, she was brainstorming ways to incorporate real-life experiences when she taught aspect about money to her students. While she was watching the news one evening, she saw a clip of students with special needs helping at a movie theater. Gray decided to try something like that at school.

“I always see teachers walking around with coffee mugs so I thought let’s deliver coffee to teachers during their planning period,” she said. “No one would say no to that.”

She started out with her students making deliveries once a week on Wednesdays. It grew from there, and Mondays were added.

There are many skills taught within these lessons. Several of her students receive speech therapy, so practicing their speaking skills is important. Some of them have reading difficulties. In order to accommodate those students, Gray said she made an order form with pictures of the menu items in addition to the words, so they circle whichever is easier for them.

“Kids, in general, could use lessons on phone etiquette in a texting world,” said Gray. “But we teach them how to use the phone. We take orders Monday mornings, and we tell them it is important to speak clearly into the phone and that people on the other end cannot see if they are shaking their head, so they need to use words. We tell them names can be tricky to spell so it is perfectly acceptable to ask, ‘Would you spell that, please?’”

Gray also teaches them to plan ahead and be organized. The Wednesday before the Monday her seven students make their deliveries, she gathers them together for a meeting.

“I have a Pinterest board full of things that are acceptable items we can make (in our facility),” Gray said. “We make iced coffees, hot coffees, lattes and a non-coffee drink. We also make a snack to serve.”

Planning ahead also involves knowing the weather forecast. They discuss the fact that teachers might not order hot drinks when it is 90 degrees. However, fall is approaching. The compromise was that they would make frozen hot chocolates.

After deciding the items they will make, it is time to make a grocery list. Each week they go shopping at Walmart along with fellow CBI teacher Sarah Hiles and her class. Gray said each student chooses which items to look for at the store, and they are responsible for putting them in the cart.

“We are really sustaining our own business, because we get our groceries that are inexpensive and the prices we charge for the orders,” said Gray. “Kids learn to count out money to pay at Walmart. They learn to make change when teachers and staff pay at school.”

The word spread to the Pekin Preschool Family Education Center, and they requested menus, too. Gray’s students deliver there as well. They are taught how to check-in at the office during their Wednesday deliveries.

The deadline for orders is Tuesday afternoon. Gray’s students write out receipts. Then they organize delivery times so they do not interrupt class times.

Brianna DeBruyne teaches fourth grade at Wilson and orders every opportunity she can.

“I usually get the iced coffee, but the creamer changes every week, so I pick whatever looks best,” she said. “I honestly just love seeing the kids and helping them count money.”

Gray said she was excited when she got an oven in the classroom so it can all be done in one space.

Her students get some help from their peers in other fourth- through sixth-grade classes when making snacks. The peer helpers also go on deliveries with Gray’s students.

“It’s nice that someone their own age goes with them,” she said. “They help my kids make change if they need help. We teach them how to interact with our kids with special needs because they might need extra processing time. It gives my kids a chance to do something cool.”

Peer helpers are only those students who have gotten their work completed and who are kind.

SCORE cards are part of an incentive program at Wilson. SCORE stands for safety, citizenship, ownership, respect and etiquette. Students who exemplify one or more of those qualities get their names put on SCORE cards, and they are collected each week. Winners are drawn and receive a prize. Gray said Assistant Principal Luke Arnsman approached her about having “peer helper” be a reward they use when he draws a SCORE card in the cafeteria, because students kept asking him if they could help Gray’s class instead of picking out a bag of chips or some other prize.

Teachers liked the café menu items so much that Gray decided to try serving lunch once a month. It’s a boxed lunch teachers can order. She said the items change month to month. Sometimes it is soup and salad with relishes and a drink. Other times it is a sandwich with chips and a pickle. Just like the sweet treats, her students take and deliver the orders.

“I’m a regular customer,” said fifth-grade teacher Stacy Bolen. “I always get an iced coffee. And every Wednesday, Red Corner Café has a homemade treat, and it’s always delicious.”

Speech teacher David Francis said, “I usually order coffee or iced coffee and then pretty much any of the desserts they make.”

 “It’s been a really cool thing,” Gray said.