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‘Those with differing abilities are capable’

The Hive helps workers with special needs achieve dreams

Amannda DeBoef

Special to the News-Leader USA TODAY NETWORK

Nestled in a shopping center in the heart of Willard is a relatively new coffee and sandwich shop that offers customers and the community something special.

Upon walking in to the eclectic and warm space at The Hive, customers are likely to notice the inviting smell of coffee and freshly-made scones, as well as the glorious plants (all for sale) coloring the canvas of this welcoming business. But there is one special ingredient that sets it apart from other local businesses: Staff who work at The Hive are differently abled folks who work part-time, part of an effort to enhance their responsibility level, job and social skill and to pave the way toward independent living.

Melissa Skaggs, the woman behind The Hive, is a former teacher and middle school counselor who retired from public education after 32 years of service. After getting her start as a substitute teacher in Springfield Public Schools, Skaggs later began teaching Family and Consumer Science (formerly Home Economics) in Republic. The seed of her current business was planted during her years there — having no access to paraprofessionals at that time, she spent many hours working on Individual Education Plan paperwork for children with special needs, or as she prefers, those with differing abilities.

After several years teaching, Skaggs decided to go back to school and received her master’s degree in counseling. She then worked as a school counselor for elementary-aged students (5th and 6th were her favorite grades) for 25 years. When asked if she misses her time in the public school setting, she said: “I miss it every day. I miss lunch duty, I miss recess, I miss the classroom, I miss it all. I loved working in the school system.”

With the combination of Family and Consumer Science teaching and coun-

seling experience came the desire to merge the two, resulting in Skaggs’ recent retirement venture, owning and operating The Hive. Why coffee? Skaggs thinks there are more opportunities to build community with coffee, breakfast delicacies, and sandwiches, for the clientele she wishes to hire and serve in her small town.

Many of The Hive’s patrons are repeat customers. Along with serving delicious food and coffee, Skaggs hopes to support local businesses and community members. She sells merchandise that is handmade and lovingly crafted to represent her shop. One such piece is a stylish ballcap, embroidered by a Willard Central mother who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria.

Skaggs is thankful for the support of the local community and the word of mouth advertising that she said is responsible for the bulk of her loyal clientele and newcomers.

“It is difficult to have a successful food business,” she said, noting “up to 85% fail within the first year.”

Terry, one Skaggs’ employees at The Hive, stays busy bussing tables, welcoming visitors, and delivering orders to tables of waiting customers. Each client/employee is provided a 500hour paid internship. Terry works about three hours a week; some other employees work more, some less, depending on their skill level and ability to adapt to the demands of a private business heavily influenced by the community. Another determining factor is how soon each individual wishes to graduate the program and land in a permanent future career.

One of Skaggs’ recent graduates, after completing his time at The Hive, was hired to work in a local school cafeteria. After performing well in that capacity, the man was hired at Mercy Hospital, was able to move into an apartment and live completely independent, which Skaggs said is the hope for many of the differently abled employees who transition through the program.

Skaggs grew emotional as she recalled the initial inspiration for the business. Skaggs said a student she taught early in her career had autism and thus was provided an Individual Education Plan to guide his progress. At that point, grade cards arrived in paper form via the postal service. The student had received an “L” (Limited) on his grade card. He told his teacher that he wanted a grade like everyone else. Skaggs, full of encouragement and a bit of tough love, told him he would have to do everything everyone else did to earn the grade he wished to receive. Looking back, she said the student’s hard work landed him a “C” in the class (though in hindsight she argued it should have been a “B”). The student was so proud of the grade he received, she said, due to the hard work he put in and the encouragement from a mentor who truly believed in him, that it planted the idea that would eventually result in The Hive.

Skaggs alluded to the fact that her years as a school counselor prepared her to be more patient, flexible, and provided the necessary ability to multitask — something she must do especially on Saturday mornings, the business’ most popular time, when the welcoming chime of the doorbell alerts Skaggs and her staff to new customers. Everyone who enters the café, whether to study on a comfy couch with a cup of hot coffee or to grab an ice cream cone while running errands, is welcomed and made to feel at home. Long-standing customers are liable to receive a hug, too, in the small town haven of hospitality.

Each employee receives a detailed list of duties and Skaggs speaks directly to the employees, always referring to them by first name (she uses her first name, as well), which she said is a way of making each feel special and important, in and out of the workplace.

Skaggs said the changes that can be seen from the time an employee starts and the completion of their internship is “night and day.”

“These employees grow and progress so much,” she said. “Their stamina increases. With only three to four hours a shift, their speaking skills grow tremendously. I do not have to tell them every little thing, their confidence and ability to function without direct supervision is astounding, and witnessing the life skills they learn during their time working at The Hive is truly rewarding.”

Skaggs said her leadership style might be considered hard by some but she wants to be able to honestly recommend each worker to future employers at the end of her time with them. The main goal of each successful internship is that the individual will be able to maintain steady employment and be a person others wish to be around, fostering personal achievement and independence as they work to meet their career and life goals.

Those ideals — including the tenants of community, hard work, and the family — reflect the honeybee culture that inspired the name, The Hive.

“The passion you see is very real,” she said. “We provide excellent coffee and delicious food. People with differing abilities are such fun to see work! Please always assume those with differing abilities are capable.”

It’s a message Skaggs also tries to spread to other small businesses in the community.

“I urge you to think of how to include someone with differing abilities in your company, even if for an hour a day,” she said. “In Springfield and surrounding areas, contact the Greene County Vocational Rehabilitation Office, they would be overjoyed to assist you.”

An hour a day may seem like a minimal investment to a business owner, she said, but to the employee who is given a chance to shine, it can be a lifechanging experience. “When people see others being valued, they too can see the value in that person,” Skaggs said. “People are treated the way they see others treat them.”

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