BETHLEHEM — The high school’s Paper Pastries card shop has provided opportunities to special needs students by equipping them with lifelong skills. Teacher Paula DiBiase said it’s also received support from the local community.
DiBiase, a teacher at the Bethlehem Central School District since 2005, heads Paper Pastries.
“Unfortunately, with work skills needed today, it’s very hard to find things that our students [with special needs] can do,” DiBiase said. “The goal for them is to be independent and some of them can do things independently when you show them, like performing the same tasks.”
Paper Pastries, which celebrates its one-year anniversary on March 15, is the high school’s first card shop. It sells colorful greeting cards with positive messages for many occasions like birthdays, graduation, the new year and the holiday season. It is located in room A108, although it sometimes does business at a temporary location in the hallways. It has even appeared at the Delmar Farmers Market.
All the shop’s envelopes, stamps and stamp pads were donated from the school and local community, DiBiase added. I Love Books, a Delmar store near the Four Corners, donated display racks and The Paper Mill, from Delaware Plaza, donated envelopes.
DiBiase said 10 students — from the LEAD (Linking Education and Development) program as part of the school’s Special Education Student Services — work on Mondays to Thursdays during eighth period. They cut and make the cards; develop their communication and motor skills; handle monetary transactions and inventory; and learn to use technology to help print designs via Bluetooth and a special Cricut cutting machine. Several aides and a speech therapist help DiBiase with the students throughout the week.
“It’s not a steady stream of business because kids these days don’t buy cards much because everybody sends messages with their phones,” she said. “But on Valentine’s Day, we did great and then there’s Mother’s Day and the holidays, too. Also, we found that most of our business comes from adults in the building overall.” She added that all money made from purchases at Paper Pastries stays within the business to help it grow and buy more materials.
David DeCancio, a member of Bethlehem Opportunities Unlimited’s board of directors, recently visited Paper Pastries to pick up a bulk order of 50 “thank you” cards he ordered last November. He said he planned to distribute them at the eighth annual Bethlehem Community Spelling Bee — which BOU hosted on Tuesday, March 3 — to people who donated money to that event as a form of gratitude and community support for Paper Pastries.
“It’s great to see these kids work together and learn good life skills together,” DeCancio said. “The BOU and I wanted to support them with the bulk purchase, and it’s one of the many interesting things being done at the school.”
Cindy Ferrari, BOU’s president, said, “I’m just thrilled that David thought of that and it’s such a great connection from our community group to the high school. David bought the cards with our [BOU] money and it’s a nice and really positive way to connect our non-profit community.”
DiBiase said she and former teacher Susan Deierlein came up with the idea for Paper Pastries, adding she was inspired by a North Carolina-based cafe called Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, owned by Amy Wright. Wright is a mother of four; two of them, named Bitty and Beau, have Down syndrome.
The cafe opened in early 2016 and has since expanded to South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland; it employs around 120 people with special needs. “[Wright] started Bitty and Beau’s for her children because when they get older, she wants to have a place for them to work, so all employees at Bitty and Beau’s have special needs and have job coaches there to help them,” said DiBiase. “Each summer, my family and I vacation at North Carolina and three years ago, I visited [Bitty and Beau’s] in Wilmington and I was so inspired.”
She also said there is a business called Puzzles Bakery and Cafe, located on 515 State Street in Schenectady, that employs adults with developmental disabilities. Owned by Sara Mae Hickey, DiBiase said Hickey’s mother used to work at Bethlehem Central as a physical therapist and her sister has autism.
This caused DiBiase and Deierlein to pitch the idea for a similar business to Principal David Doemel Jr., at the high school. “We said what we wanted to do and if we could set up shop somewhere. And everybody has been so, so, so supportive of it,” DiBiase said. This led to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in March 2019, attended by students and faculty including Doemel, Superintendent Jody Monroe and Director of Special Education and Student Services Kathleen Johnston.
Looking ahead, DiBiase hopes to move the shop into a permanent location in the school and wants to help the students conduct business at the monthly Delmar Farmers Market in May, June, September, October, November and December. “We had a lot of people stop by there and for the kids in the past, and it gave them so much experience to handle the cards and interact with them and be outside,” she said.
She said she would also like to collaborate with some general education students, especially those with art or graphic design skills, to help make more cards with original designs.
DiBiase added that she continues to enjoy working with the LEAD students at Paper Pastries. “The best thing that can happen for these kids is for people to just think outside the box,” she concluded. “They’re the most loyal and honest employees. Once they learn something, it’s great.”
Photos by Diego Cagara / Spotlight News