Residents of Northeast Denver have a new place to buy a cup of coffee while supporting a worthy cause. DIRT, which stands for Divergent Inclusive Representation Transforms, opened on the Mosaic Community Campus (formerly Johnson & Wales) in September. Its mission is to employ and empower individuals who are neurodivergent—a term that describes a variety of cognitive functioning abilities that include autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, and ADHD.
DIRT started in 2013 with a mobile coffee truck and was the idea of several parents who had met in a support group for children with autism, explains Executive Director Catharina Hughey. “They felt that independence and access to employment was essential to the health and well-being of their children.” A workforce training program was developed, which taught a variety of business, social, and life skills. Five years later, DIRT opened up a coffee shop in Littleton. The Park Hill location became its second brick-and-mortar operation.
DIRT Coffee offers three-month paid internships for young adults with one-on-one job coaching. Since its inception, nearly 200 people have gone through the program. “We know not everyone is going to end up working in a coffee shop. We want them to get the meaningful jobs they want, so we make sure that the skills we teach them are very transferable,” says Hughey.
A year ago, Ryan (who didn’t want his last name used) worked as an intern at the Littleton location. He says the workforce training helped him acquire social skills that will help him move forward with a career. He hopes to become an engineer after graduating from college, and he thinks the training he received at DIRT and the relationships he formed with the staff will serve him well. “Even though the social aspect is overlooked, it’s a really big part of not just jobs but living in the world.”
DIRT also operates a program with potential employers. “We find that post-pandemic, so many companies are interested in tapping into new labor pools, but they aren’t quite sure how to access the neurodivergent labor pool and do it in a way that is respectful,” says Hughey. DIRT works with employers to determine the type of jobs they want to offer, the goals they hope to achieve, and the accommodations they want to make so that both the employer and employee will be successful.
Hughey says she is thrilled with the opportunity to expand DIRT’s mission on the Mosaic Community Campus. “The minute I stepped on that campus, I fell in love. It feels like the right place for us to be with its work-live-learn environment.” She hopes DIRT will be able to double its internship program and perhaps eventually partner with the Kitchen Network to bake the pastries that they sell at the coffee shop.
“Our mission is to connect people. That’s what coffee does—it brings people together. So I hope our customers feel that inclusivity and accessibility that we strive for.”
DIRT is located on the Mosaic Community Campus at 1785 Quebec St. Current hours are Mon.–Fri., 7am–1pm. More information is available at www.dirtcoffee.org.
Front Porch photos by Christie Gosch