Local teen with disability misses summer job training after program canceled

Posted on 23 May 2020 at 5:25pm

COLUMBIA - One local teenager with a disability is out of work after learning his employment training program for the summer had been canceled due to COVID-19.

TJ Coates, a 16-year-old high school student, was expecting to find work through Boone County Family Resources, a local organization that provides social services for people with disabilities. Coates, who has autism, was going to participate in the organization’s vocational training experience. Coates’ mom, Pamala Smith, said it would have been his first year in the program.

“We don’t know what after high school looks like for TJ," Smith said. "If there is college, if there’s [vocational technology] training, if we go straight into a job; but we were more interested in the social aspect and how to manage jobs in general."

Although neither Smith nor her son wanted this outcome, Smith said it is probably for the best.

“Due to COVID, we were kind of okay with it," she said. "We’ve been pretty protective of the kids, haven’t really let them out of the house. I think if they would’ve went ahead and had it this year, we probably would have debated whether we even let him participate in it or not.”

Smith said her concerns stemmed from potentially not knowing how many people her son would come in contact with at work. Smith hopes there will be a more inclusive work environment for people with disabilities in the future. 

“Something as simple as having them do the same thing all the time,” she said. “Someone like TJ, once he has a routine, he’s got it down. He can do that and he will do that the right way.”

Smith praised the owners of Columbia business, Love Coffee. Love Coffee is a business that provides job skills training and employment to individuals with disabilities or barriers to employment.

“I think that if someone wants to have an inclusive business, it can happen," she said. "My husband and I were talking last night, we’re really sad about Love Coffee here in town. Due to COVID-19, they announced it’s not going well. And it breaks our heart to see a company that is built on inclusivity not make it.”

Love Coffee made their financial struggles public in a Facebook post on Friday.

But on Saturday, partner David Wilson said they received a long line of customers. He told KOMU at this time, they have not decided to close their doors. Instead, he emphasized the continued support they need from patrons new and old.

“We didn’t get to really build our clientele before we had to close our doors,” Wilson said. “So we’re thinking of this as a second re-opening.”

Wilson said he has not been able to keep as many staff on hand as he would like due to budget constraints. Others with disabilities in the community, such as Coates, are still without a summer job for the foreseeable future.