New Calgary coffee shop serves up opportunity for developmentally challenged employees

Paying close attention to detail, Shelby Zawrucha works on perfecting her pour. 

The 24-year-old is a barista at the Lil E Coffee Cafe in downtown Calgary.

She has Down syndrome and said this is her first job after applying at a number of different businesses. 

“I don’t like the in-person interviews, because when they see me, they always reject me,” Zawrucha said.

That didn’t happen at the Lil E Coffee Cafe.

In fact, the hiring criteria is clear. Developmental and intellectually challenged candidates need only apply.

Calgarian Paul Constance founded the Lil E Cafe which hires only people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Paul Constance is the owner and founder of the cafe, which operates on a non-profit business model. 

He said he was inspired to start the venture by his daughter, three-year-old Ella, who has Down syndrome.

“It rips you apart to think somebody, one day, Ella would go for an interview and hear the ‘no’ — they have so much confidence and energy in what they could bring to the table,” Constance said.

Constance’s staff currently consists of five employees with Down syndrome, five with autism. He has people to help them with some of the tasks behind the counter.

“We’re just looking at building a culture to create awareness and ultimately an acceptance of how amazing these people are,” Constance said.

Shelby works at Lil E Cafe which hires only people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Zawrucha said she likes this job because she can work on her money skills and coffee art, but wants to be a role model for Ella.

“It inspires me when she’s walking around or running around. It reminds me of me,” Zawrucha said. 

Constance wants to see more cafes with this philosophy open in other cities like Edmonton and Vancouver. 

The Lil E Coffee Cafe is located inside Sun Life Plaza on Fourth Avenue S.W.

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