Delaney Dunigan serves a cupcake to a patron at Cafe St. Joe.
CS PHOTOS BY MICHAEL HOYT Delaney Dunigan serves a cupcake to a patron at Cafe St. Joe.

On the third Sunday of every month, the multi-purpose room of St. Andrew the Apostle in Silver Spring is transformed into a coffee shop, where cheerful workers in red aprons and baseball caps greet the long line of customers purchasing their morning coffee and pastries.

The coffee shop is called “Café St. Joe,” and is staffed by the youth from St. Joseph’s House, a Silver Spring-based non-profit that cares for youth and teens with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities.

Cubby and Dan LaHood founded St. Joseph’s House in 1983, and it is now run by their daughter-in-law Natalie LaHood, who is the executive director, and their son, Joe LaHood. It had been a long-time dream of Cubby, who died in September 2015, to have a coffee house in the community that could provide meaningful employment to members of St. Joseph’s House. So when Father Dan Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew’s, asked how the parish could be more involved in the work of St. Joseph’s House, it was the perfect opportunity to give the café a shot.

With the help of a grant from Catholic Charities, the LaHoods purchased the supplies that they would need to start Café St. Joe, and kicked it off in October 2016.

The youth from St. Joseph’s House sell a variety of pastries, including gluten free treats, coffee, espresso drinks, and hot chocolate. They also sell bags of their own custom-made coffee from Furnace Hills Coffee, which is a fair and direct-trade coffee roaster based in Westminster, Maryland that employs adults with disabilities.

Each member of St. Joseph’s House has a specific job during Café St. Joe. Most of the time, Gina Baldini makes hot chocolate, Curtis Teets holds the sign to welcome people and buses the tables, and Delaney Dunigan sells cupcakes.

“I like to talk with the customers,” said Dunigan, an 18-year old with Down syndrome who attends Walter Johnson High School and the St. Joseph’s House after school program.

Café St. Joe is held after the 10:00am and 11:30am Masses at St. Andrew’s, and during each Mass, members of St. Joseph’s House bring up the gifts and then go serve at the café after Mass has ended.

“It helps all our children get work experience and do it independently and feel proud of themselves,” said Liz Baldini, Gina’s mom.

In addition to the current members of St. Joseph House, volunteers from the parish and other local communities, like the Silver Spring Catholic young adult group, have come to serve at the café. Between the volunteers, the customers from the parish, and the St. Joseph House members, the café has been “a simple way to create space for meaningful encounter among individuals and groups who might not otherwise meet,” Natalie LaHood said.

The LaHoods noted how Pope Francis has called for opportunities for those with all abilities to participate in parish life, and said the Café St. Joe ministry has been a mutual service between them and the parish.

“We hope that by providing these young people an opportunity to serve in the life of the parish, they will recognize themselves - and be recognized - as integral to the fabric of the community,” Natalie LaHood told the Catholic Standard in an e-mail. “It's hard to come to Cafe St. Joe and leave without a smile on your face. The love and joy that our youth share are real forms of evangelization; they constantly remind us that true happiness comes from this unconditional love, and not from perfection.”

Through this encounter, the LaHoods hope that serving the needs of people with all abilities will become a more consistent priority in parishes, where it has sometimes been difficult for children with disabilities to receive faith formation. While this issue is improving, Joe LaHood said the ability to engage with people of all abilities differs from parish to parish.

“It shouldn’t be like that,” Joe LaHood said. “These guys should have the same options. …That’s the biggest thing we can do…to have these guys front and center and say, ‘This is our community too’.”

If the café continues to go well at St. Andrew’s, the LaHoods hope it can be replicated at other parishes, with other groups who care for people with disabilities.

“We hope that the moments of encounter at Cafe St. Joe will bear witness to the fact that even if learning processes and expression are different, everyone can love God, everyone can serve, and everyone desires communion with God, which we receive most fully in the Sacraments,“ said Natalie LaHood.