Healthy Living

Serving up Java and Jobs for Those with Autism


Dirt Coffee, a non-profit with a mission to train and employ adults with autism, was founded in 2013. This non-profit has been operating out of a coffee truck, serving freshly roasted organic coffee and espresso by individuals with autism. Dirt Coffee strives to “change perspectives, improve lives and serve great coffee”, all the while demonstrating to the general public that individuals with autism are employable. Yet, why the name Dirt? “We are all about building a foundation, planting seeds that inspire and cultivate growth,” explained Lauren Thome Burgess, founder of Dirt Coffee.

Burgess has founded several organizations throughout her career and continues to advocate for individuals with disabilities. “I realized that there are a ton of adults with autism that are capable... [but] who are having a hard time getting face-to-face interviews,” she said. In 2016, she was elected to serve as City Commissioner on Denver’s Commission for People with Disabilities. Today, she serves as Chair and Executive Director of both Dirt and its parent firm, Garden, a day center for individuals with autism.

Served with enthusiasm

In downtown Denver, individuals are lining up for a freshly brewed cup of coffee that comes with a side of enthusiasm. “I’m having a fantastic morning. Thank you! Have a magical day, sir” said Daniel Boone, a bright young man who is on the autism spectrum. Daniel started interning at Dirt after graduating from high school and he was one of its first employees. In 2016, he was awarded Dirt’s Employee of the Year. “I like serving customers and just bringing a smile to their faces,” he said. Daniel has been working at Dirt for over 3 years now and he always greets his customers with a smile. “I’m really adored by other people and that’s been the biggest dream come true,” he said.

Dirt’s goal

The focus of the Dirt’s employment program is to help individuals with autism thrive in their occupational and social skills. Students ages 18-35 participate in individualized training and one on one job coaching. Upon completion of the program, the participants are placed in jobs among the community based on their skills and interests.

According to Burgess, over 95% of participants have been successfully moved from training to job placement. “Our goal is for participants to be independent within three months. We make a commitment to be support for the life of their job. We check on them and are the support for them and their employer,” she said. Owen, an employee at Dirt, previously worked at Sam’s Club, but the job did not work out for him. Now, he is completely satisfied with his new job and cannot see himself working anywhere else. “Dirt makes me happy because we get to go around the metro area and sell coffee to customers. I work on staying focused, using a loud voice, selling drinks to customers, and raising awareness for autism,” said Owen.

Since the start of the non-profit, the coffee truck has trained and employed 26 individuals with autism, while providing internships and giving away over $30,000 dollars in scholarships to families in need and their caregivers. “People typically try our coffee first, and learn about the mission second, which is exactly what we want to happen,” said Burgess. “They return because they know it’s a good cause and get to hang out with awesome people who have autism and serve them coffee,” she added. After touching so many lives, Burgess and team members, Emily Wallace and Lauren Jennings, decided to open a ‘Dirt Coffee Bar’ in downtown Littleton.

The mission’s history

Emily Wallace started her work with individuals with developmental disabilities back in 2006. Since then, she knew that she wanted to help individuals on the spectrum and in 2013, she moved to Denver and began working as a Behavior Therapist at Garden. It is there where she teamed up with Burgess for the launch of Dirt. Currently, she is the director of employment and oversees Dirt’s training and educational programming. Lauren Jennings has over 4 years of experience working with neuro-diverse individuals. She was initially hired as a barista and job coach at Dirt, but quickly took on a leadership role as director of mobile operations.

Plans for the brick-and-mortar spot

Renovations are currently underway for the ‘Dirt Coffee Bar’ and the coffee shop in set to open in April 2018. The team members hope to be able to raise $50,000 to purchase quality equipment such as espresso machines and brewers, as well as pay licenses, rent, and necessary fees. They also hope to employ 4 adults with autism within the first year, all the while aiming to support and offer job training to all staff members. Their overall goal is to create a relaxing and accepting environment that will empower and employ individuals with autism.

Other notable places

Stacey Wohl started the Cause Cafe on Long Island, New York in order to have a place where her two adult children with autism could work. Since then, she has hired other staff members with autism. Similarly, a café in Michigan by the name of After 26 Depot was founded in order to create job opportunities for individuals with cognitive impairment and developmental disabilities. Much like Dirt, staff members aim to raise awareness, all the while lowering employment rates for individuals with autism. They help to empower and support one another, despite disabilities. “People on the spectrum usually see things in black and white. However, success is not that simple. Success is measured on a spectrum as well, reflecting the very individualized needs of the population Dirt serves. Last year, one student couldn’t even step onto the truck. Now, he can work for ten minutes at a time. Long-term, we would like to see people with autism doing everything for the coffee truck, from booking events to managing employees,” said Burgess.

The transition into adulthood 

Transitioning to adulthood is a major crossroad in an individual’s life, but for young individuals with autism, this transition can be rather difficult. As opposed to individuals with other types of disabilities, young individuals with autism have lower rates of employment and higher rates of social seclusion. In fact, according to recent findings, over 60% of young individuals with autism did not have a job nor a plan for continuing their education following the first two years after finishing high school. What’s more, adults with autism currently have a 90% unemployment rate. 

  • A majority of adults with autism want to work but only 19% are employed.
  • More than 60% of individuals with autism have been bullied or discriminated in the workplace.
  • More than 40% of individuals with autism have lost their jobs due to their diagnosis.
  • More than 80% of individuals with autism will never live by themselves.
  • The societal costs for adults with autism is set to reach $1 trillion on an annual basis by the year 2025.

“Although the core of the disability is an inability to relate easily to other people, the majority of people on the spectrum do have some amount of social appetite,” said Paul Shattuck, an associate professor at Drexel University’s School of Public Health. However, they lack social support. “But autism doesn't go away when people turn 18. We need to figure out how to help adults on the spectrum as well,” said Shattuck.