Like any parent, Meg Barnhart wants her son, Doug, to find fulfilling employment one day.
He’s a 15-year-old who loves people and “can sell anybody anything,” said Barnhart. Because he has a language-based learning disability, Barnhart worries Doug wouldn’t be able to find meaningful work.
“A lot of times, kids with language-based issues or cognitive-based issues are put behind the scenes, and that isn’t necessarily the right place for them,” said the Lake Forest resident. “To put my child in a real linear task, it would be a total waste of his talent.”
While reading an article about gourmet ice cream flavors last summer, Barnhart had an idea: an ice cream shop would be the perfect place for her son, who attends in Northbrook, a school for children with learning disabilities.
“I thought that would be fun,” she said. “People are in a good mood when they come there; they’re not in a hurry.”
So Barnhart contacted a friend, Chris Hill, who happens to own the local ice cream chain Bobtail along with fellow founder Jeff Wilcoxon. When Barnhart told Hill about her idea, he said he would love to help, she recalled.
“I thought that was such a huge gesture,” she said.
Now, four interns from Cove School are working at , packing pints, scooping cones and bringing home paychecks.
“I could not be more proud,” said Annemarie Bennett, Cove’s media resource teacher and the students’ mentor at Bobtail. “The kids have been extremely motivated and enthusiastic.”
Bennett said the experience has been great for her students not just for the fun but also because it has given them a firsthand sense of the ups and downs of running a business. When the power went out after a violent evening storm two weeks ago, her students were the first workers to arrive the next day.
The ice cream was ruined, the store was dark and there were puddles on the floor. But Cove students Keyanna Cooperwood and Sandy Schweigel, both incoming seniors, stepped up to the challenge.
“This is so important to them, they clean like nobody’s business,” Bennett said. “They were vital. They were absolutely needed on this day.”
Cooperwood, who lives in Chicago, said the day after the storm was her hardest day on the job.
“It took the entire shift to clean up,” she recalled. “I was kind of surprised and a little disappointed that everything had to go.”
Despite the challenge of cleaning up after the power outage, Cooperwood said she loves the opportunity to interact with customers. Her favorite part of the job, she added, is seeing all the happy people come in.
Cove student and fellow summer intern Tim Finnegan, who lives in Wilmette, said he also enjoyed the social aspect of the job.
“I do like interacting with the customers, and people I know want to come visit me,” Finnegan said.
The social interaction Bobtail provides is exactly what Barnhart was looking for when she imagined her son’s life after high school. While Doug is too young for the internship, she hopes that it will still be around in a few years when he’s ready.
“What we really need to do as parents is to start thinking about retrofitting a business,” she said. “How can we make the experience behind the register as successful as it is for the person in front?”
That could include color-coding different flavors of ice cream for students who struggle with reading, breaking down the steps of any task into a pictorial guide as Bennett did for her students or role-playing interactions with guests.
“A lot of their focus at this company is providing excellent customer service,” she explained, noting that the Bobtail experience included a personal greeting to everyone who enters the store.
“That’s a little nerve-wracking for some of our kids,” she added. But with practice, her students feel more comfortable saying hello casually without relying on a script.
To prepare its students for working at Bobtail, Cove School even bought an ice cream cart so they could practice scooping the frozen treat beforehand.
Once at the store, Bennett is right there beside her students, wearing a blue Bobtail apron and tan polo shirt.
“I’m doing everything that they’re doing, which is good because it’s easy to diminish what they’re doing,” she said. That means cleaning countertops, packing ice cream sandwiches and making milkshakes.
“Annemarie came back from training and she said, ‘You can’t believe how hard it is to make a milkshake,’ ” recalled Alexandra Argentar, Cove School director of development.
So when summer intern Nick DelBene got it just right last week, Bennett knew exactly how hard-won that victory was. Good thing for Bobtail’s customers, too, since DelBene can now make a mean milkshake with the store’s finicky machine.
“There are so many kids who need employment in the workforce,” said Barnhart. “If we create a situation where they can be supported, they can be great workers.”
Not to mention great examples. One day, Barnhart, Bennett and Argentar hope their model is one that can be transferred to other businesses.
For now, however, Cove students are working the cash register and serving up shakes and sundaes at Bobtail’s shop in Wilmette. Walk in the door and you’ll get a personal greeting—one that may be as much a success for the shop as it is for the Cove student who gives it to you.
Click on our video above to watch Cove students working behind Bobtail's counter.