WEST CARROLLTON, Ohio (WDTN) – A student-run coffee shop in West Carrollton is breaking barriers and helping students thrive. 

The Pirate Bay Cafe started in 2016. It’s a coffee shop inside West Carrollton High School run entirely by special education students where they learn everything from job experience to life skills. 

“It mostly gives us the opportunity to interact with other people and also gives us good job experience for when we go out into the real world,” said senior Zachary Wills. “I’m mostly the cashier here and I mostly just take people’s money when they ask for drinks and stuff.” 

“Basically, what I do I make cappuccino for people I serve,” said senior Desmond Harshaw. 

Interventionist Brad Carlisle oversees operations.

“All of the equipment in that kiosk is hand-operated. It’s not just – push a button and make a drink. These kids are baristas,” said Carlisle. “Special needs kids are people too, and they have aspirations and hopes of getting meaningful, gainful employment, and this is a good tool to get them there.” 

Emily Biggs is the job coach. 

“We have students in the coffee shop that are nonverbal, but they use their devices or they use their hands,” said Biggs. 

Senior David Reese is one of them. He uses a device to communicate. 

Serving up coffee, these students are not just making drinks, they’re learning social skills.

“I like seeing my friends and working with my coworkers,” said sophomore Krystal Martin. “I work on the cappuccino machines.”

The cafe also gives students a taste of some real-world experience. 

“I like passing (drinks) out to people and giving them what they want and making sure that they like the drink,” said junior Franando Miliner. 

For Biggs, the program is rewarding in many ways. 

“I work in special needs, and I go home to special needs. My son is essentially nonverbal and gets overstimulated at times. So having a program, it kind of touches on my mama heart,” said Biggs, whose 8-year-old son has autism. 

The cafe is also a way to help these students build confidence.

“I learn confidence because I have to stand up and make sure I’m confident enough to speak to the person and communicate more,” said Miliner. 

“We get to do the toppings. We get to communicate with people, talk to people,” said freshman Kiersten Vanderpool. “The hardest part for me is like trying to like keep up with everybody else’s order.”

As they fill orders and work different roles at the cafe, the students continue to grow. 

“We have kids that start out and they talk with their eyes down, they don’t communicate, or they don’t want to talk, and this is so important,” said Biggs. “By senior year, they’re running the coffee shop.” 

“You see how much they’ve grown when they first come in to when they leave. It’s very rewarding,” said Carlisle. 

The Pirate Bay Cafe is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. to staff, students, and outside customers.