After many years of both professional and volunteer work with young adults with special needs, Beth Newton conceived the idea for a place where people with disabilities could gain steady work experience and serve the community with a smile.
Newton, who used to teach special education at Loudoun County Public Schools and most recently led the special needs ministry at Cornerstone Chapel, brought her idea to Paul Smith, founder and executive director of local nonprofit Tree of Life Ministries.
TOL’s several specialized branches include Still Waters, which cares for children of parents with special needs and where Newton volunteered for nine years.
“During all of this, I realized that there weren’t many opportunities for employment for young adults with special needs, and I mentioned my idea of having a coffee shop or something where we could employ these special people,” Newton told the Times-Mirror. “God was tugging on my heart to have something like that come to reality, and Paul had the exact same idea and vision.”
Smith’s “very similar vision” for TOL’s growth led Isabel Mayer, the nonprofit’s Leesburg regional director, to encourage Newton to meet with Smith in the first place, Newton said.
“Paul Smith … always had a special part in his heart for the special needs community,” Mayer said. “The passion to work with special needs and the families of special needs folks is something that has been in Paul’s heart for well over a decade as Tree of Life has expanded from Purcellville to Leesburg.”
That expansion included the addition of a new ministry aimed at locals with special needs called SimplyBe. While Still Waters accommodates parents who wish to drop off their children for a short respite, SimplyBe is aimed more at giving young adults a community of their own.
According to Mayer, before the COVID-19 health crisis effectively hamstrung large community gatherings, SimplyBe events were an inspiring, enjoyable Friday night function.
“We were able to do functions where young adults with special needs were able to come in and have an opportunity to play games. There was music and dancing, and we were able also to do a devotional, a moment of words of encouragement, and create that sense of community,” she said.
However, the pandemic did not hinder TOL’s efforts to obtain a brick-and-mortar premises for a business run by members of the SimplyBe community and other special-needs locals. Around Thanksgiving of 2019, Smith found a vacant Leesburg storefront for what would eventually be known as SimplyBe Coffee, which — thanks to extensive employee training in health mitigation strategies — held its soft opening last month before finally having its grand opening Dec. 11.
Newton, now the official store manager, said the TOL community and other volunteers and partners played a crucial role in what was a rapid preparatory period; many of the renovations that were done to the new location took place mere weeks before the soft opening.
She was able to procure the help of artisanal coffee brewer Michael Amouri, of Caffè Amouri in Vienna, to provide high-quality beans, and partnered with two local bakers — who themselves have children with special needs — to help churn out an assortment of tasty treats.
“I have to say we have the best coffee in the world. I consider myself a coffee snob,” said Newton. “And our baked goods are the best in town.”
As for the true showrunners behind the counter, Newton has made the most of her connections with the Loudoun County Public Schools special education department to build a roster of employees. She has also contracted with ECHO, or Every Citizen Has Opportunities, a Leesburg nonprofit that provides job placement for people with disabilities.
Newton had never worked in a coffee shop before starting the SimplyBe storefront, so learning the ins and outs of day-to-day business was new for her and her employees alike, but she called it “a fun learning experience” nonetheless.
“We started out with some basic skills training — why do you wear an apron, why do you wear a hat when you’re behind the counter, how do you wash your hands appropriately, why do you wash your hands — the real basics of the job,” she explained.
True on-the-job training did not truly come until the soft opening. But Newton believes she and her employees could not have asked for a better first foray into the business.
“[The employees] rose to the occasion, and the community came out and supported that. It was a fantastic experience,” she said. “It’s really just full-circle. Everything in the shop — the artwork, the sensory area — is devoted to the special needs community, and them being able to give back to their community.”
That artwork, which hangs on one of the walls inside the shop, is provided entirely by the DaVinci School of Arts, a program of the Franklin Park Arts Center in Purcellville that provides a creative outlet for special-needs adults. All pieces are for sale, and the majority of the funds go back to the artists, while small percentages come back to SimplyBe and DaVinci.
Atop the ability to show support for the local special needs community and to simply enjoy a good cup of joe, Newton and Mayer said Loudouners should visit SimplyBe for the uplifting, one-of-a-kind experience it offers.
“We want people to come, have a different, unique experience, but they don’t come in just for the coffee or the baked goods,” Newton said. “We want to be able to serve them a little bit more of joy, a little bit of happiness and make them a happier person when they leave.”
“This is a unique coffee shop in the most beautiful way possible, and as soon as you walk through the door, we want that guest to feel joy and happiness and just a moment to just breathe,” Mayer added.
SimplyBe Coffee is at 940A Edwards Ferry Rd. NE in Leesburg and is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. More information is available at tolministries.org/simplybecoffee.html.