Colleen Hammond | editor-in-chief
Oct. 21, 2021
The smell of freshly-baked snickerdoodles and wafts through the air as visitors are greeted with an abundance of smiles past the bright blue doors of Br. Andre’s Cafe.
Located in the lower level of Epiphany Church on Washington Place, Br. Andre’s Cafe is the newest and nearest coffee shop in the Downtown area. However, unlike any other coffee shop in Pittsburgh, Br. Andre’s employs almost exclusively adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Founded in Nov. as an online coffee and cookie retailer, Br. Andre’s Cafe is the passion project of Mike and Terri Fitzgerald. As a child, the Fitzgeralds’ youngest son, Patrick, was diagnosed with autism. Although Patrick had an abundance of resources growing up, Mike and Terri struggled to help Patrick find a job once he aged out of the school system.
Although Patrick excelled in the food service program at Community College of Allegheny County, Mike said, upon his completion of the program, the Fitzgerald’s grappled with helping Patrick find work.
“We went from agency to agency,” Mike said. “But we couldn’t find a job.”
Despite Mike’s lengthy background in human resources and the couple’s knowledge of opportunities for adults with disabilities, they could not find a place that would provide Patrick with employment while making necessary accommodations for him.
Hitting a brick wall in the job market, the Fitzgeralds decided to find food service volunteer opportunities for Patrick. Eventually, the family found a safe space for Patrick at Red Door Ministries, an arm of Divine Mercy Parish that serves food and supplies to those experiencing homelessness.
While at Red Door, the family watched Patrick flourish in the company of his new work partner, the Rev. Chris Donley.
“Patrick was working there and they loved him,” Mike said.
But when lockdown hit in March 2020, the Fitzgeralds found themselves back at square one in their employment quest.
“If you think Covid was bad for us, think about how it was for people with disabilities,” Mike said.
Unsure of how to proceed, the Fitzgeralds discussed some ideas with Donley. And the general concept of Br. Andre’s Cafe was soon born.
Even against the challenges of the pandemic, the Fitzgeralds and Donley wanted to find a way for Patrick to share his passion for food service — specifically baking — with their community. Last Nov., they began selling homemade cookies and coffee in bulk online.
After the “shocking” success of their online store, the group looked into a brick-and-mortar location that would employ Patrick long term. Seeing an abundance of unused spaces in the Catholic Churches of Pittsburgh, Donley offered the lower level of Epiphany Church as a home base for the cafe.
“Fr. Chris really has a heart for the most vulnerable,” Mike said.
As the project progressed, the group recognized that Patrick was not alone in the ongoing battle for employment.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.9% of adults with a disability were employed in 2020, compared to the 61.8% of adults without a disability who were employed.
Subsequently, the Fitzgeralds discovered they were not the only family in the area struggling to find employment for their grown child with a disability. Soon word got out, and the Br. Andre’s family only grew from there.
Now, in just their first few weeks of opening, Br. Andre’s Cafe employs nine adults living with disabilities ranging from both ends of the autism spectrum to traumatic brain injuries, Down Syndrome and fine motor issues.
“We’re establishing a community, not just a coffee shop,” Mike said.
Now, Terri Fitzgerald frequently works alongside her son, helping him make his “famous snickerdoodles” as well as a host of other sweets, including cinnamon crunch scones, chocolate peanut butter chip cookies, chocolate chip cookies and, of course, cups of coffee.
“We have a nice little system down, Patrick and I,” Terri said.
While Patrick excels at baking, Mike and Terri realize that all the employees would have different abilities and skill levels, so they attempt to tailor jobs at the cafe for each employee.
For example, Julia Fieldhammer has a physical disability that confines her to a wheelchair and affects her speech. But, according to the Fitzgeralds, she is an amazing writer. Fieldhammer works at Br. Andre’s as their resident blogger and social media writer.
“As a new employee, I was really excited to spend some time with the other team members!” Fieldhammer said in her inaugural blog post.
It’s intentional efforts like this that caught the eye of cafe program director Ree Mitra. After working as the Fitzgeralds’ coffee supplier while Br. Andre’s was still fully online, Mitra felt “called” to work in this unique environment.
“I’m working in coffee with a cause,” Mitra said with a smile.
He hopes to see the cafe expand in the months to come and invites Duquesne students, staff and faculty to stop by for a visit to meet the young people that are shaping his life.
“They make you feel like a rockstar every time you come in here,” Mike said.
In the future, Mitra and the Fitzgeralds hope to hire a full-time occupational therapist to assist the employees in their work. Although all the employees need some form of accommodations, Mitra sees this as an opportunity “to do something meaningful in this season of life.”
“It’s not so much us helping them, Mitra said. “It’s them helping us.”