Iris, 21, works at a colorful tea and pastry shop in Great Barrington, Mass. that offers integrated employment opportunities to adults with disabilities.
With help from an aid, she pitches in to make the store’s popular tea-infused dog biscuits and is being trained in customer service. Most importantly though, working at ExtraSpecialTeas gives Iris—who has visual and developmental disabilities—the chance to open up socially.
“She can be the sweetest girl or just shut down and say nothing,” says her father, Gary. “When she’s there, she’s more of that sweet girl. It gives her that feeling of self accomplishment.”
Iris arrived in Great Barrington by way of Perkins School for the Blind after graduating in 2019. Her job at the tea shop is a central part of her personalized transition plan—a post-education roadmap drawn by Iris with help from family, teachers and staff to ensure a smooth entry into adult life. And like so many others, hers was drawn over the course of years, from her time in the Lower School on up through her studies in the Secondary Program.
“There’s this big fear that students with disabilities leave school and then fall off the proverbial cliff with no safety net,” says Denise Fitzgerald, Director of Transition Services at Perkins. “We do everything we can to avoid that—we work with every student and family to develop a plan that works for them and we work with partners in the community to help them stick to it.”
Out in the bucolic hills of Western Mass., Iris is proof of that.
She now lives in a residential community run by Cadmus Lifesharing Association, a network of independent households that care for people with disabilities and one of Perkins’ many transition partners. There, she follows a work/life schedule that supports her needs and adds to her skill sets.
In addition to working at the tea shop, she attends therapy movement, art and music classes, regularly visits the library to sharpen her braille literacy and takes community field trips to keep her engaged with the town she now calls home.
As for skill building, Iris is learning to fashion her own hair in her favored pigtail style, is going to the bank to cash her checks and has recently begun buckling her own seatbelt without help or instruction to do so.
“With Iris, we’re building layer by layer on what she can do,” says Penni Greene, who works for Cadmus and provides a home for her. “We’re trying to help her build the most independent life she can build and we believe in her enough to say, ‘you can do this.’”
And all that hard work is paying off, says her father.
“She’s been out there full time since right after she graduated,” says Gary. “She went to visit some family a couple months after arriving and I’m told she was so talkative and excited about telling everyone what she’s been doing. When she left to go back to Great Barrington, it was the first time in a long time she left without tears in her eyes.”