Rolling Cafe at Truman Elementary Teaches Kids Life Skills

May 17, 2017

Teachers at Truman Elementary look forward each day to a visit by Chase Obrey, a fifth grader in one of the school’s two special needs classrooms.

Chase, who is on the autism spectrum, is the main operator of the Rolling Café, which sells snacks and drinks in the morning and afternoon.  He’s been on the job for two years.

He takes the cart around, serves the teachers, puts money in the cash register and counts and gives back change.

Chase and his classmates prepare the cart in the mornings by making coffee and tea.  The cart uses real coffee cups, and the students are responsible for washing them and putting them away.

As Chase nears a classroom, he announces his presence by ringing a bell.

For teachers that want to buy something but don’t have money right then, Chase will keep a tab so they can pay later.

At the end of the day, students restock the cart, cover it up and put it away.

Chase’s teacher, Jean Lawson, said students have learned more than she even expected them to when she started the business.  According to Lawson, operating the Rolling Cafe is a much more effective teaching tool than sitting at a desk counting money and completing worksheets.

"In fact, what Chase has done this year, especially, is he's taken his money skills and he's increased in his use of money skills beyond what we were teaching him," she said.  "He would say, 'do you want that back in five dimes or two quarters?' and was exploring:  this is the same as this amount of money; you could use nickels to get to this amount.  He was kind of self-learning."

According to Lawson, the Rolling Cafe teaches kids to stick to a job until it’s done.  It also helps students with their Individual Education Program or Individual Education Program (IEP) goals, and there are other benefits.

"It has gotten them to be more popular in the school," Lawson said.  They walk down...the hallways, and the kids see him.  They say, 'hi, Chase,' as he's walking down the hall.  He comes up to the classrooms and the kids will tell the teacher, 'the Rolling Cafe is here,' and so he's made a lot of new friends in school."

The Rolling Café recently received a $10,000 prize from the United Commercial Travelers Gives Back Again Video Contest to help other schools implement a similar program. 

Lawson plans to use some of the money to install a real kitchen in her classroom to teach kids life skills and also to add an area for hands-on learning where students can draw on a chalkboard and build things on their own rather than being told what to do.

"They have such a short period of time to tell them what we tell them to do, and what they really need is a longer period of time to explore and grow on their own," she said.

She said the rolling Café has helped everyone realize a skill even Chase didn’t know he had.

"We discovered there's an entrepreneur on Chase, and it was through this Rolling Cafe," said Lawson.  "He would go down, push the cart, and he would tell people if they bought a snack, he would say, 'would you like a drink with that?' or they would buy a drink, and he would say, 'do you want a snack with that?'"

Truman principal, Joellyn Travis, said the Rolling Café allows the special education students to socialize and be part of the Truman family.  And it benefits students in regular classrooms, too.

"Mrs. Lawson's students are serving as a model for our building on how to greet and treat others," she said.

Chase may not realize all that he and other students are learning from the Rolling Cafe.  He just knows that he loves his job and that it’s his favorite thing to do at school.