World Citizenship Award Recipient

Amy Wright started drinking coffee when she became a parent, adding just a bit of cream and sugar to her morning pick-me-up.  Nowadays, her cup of joe comes with much more – the satisfaction it’s changing lives and perceptions.

The Wilmington, North Carolina, mother of four is the proud founder of Bitty and Beau’s, a coffee shop chain employing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  The company is named after her two younger children, who both live with Down syndrome. 

“From the time Beau was born, we’ve been advocating and trying to figure out ways to bring people into our world, and to show them the value of our children,” says Wright.  “We would do things like hosting walks and blogging, but we couldn’t quite get where we wanted to be with getting people to care about what we cared about so much.”

Then, in fall 2015, the answer came to Wright out of the blue, of all things, in the shower.  She decided she would open a coffee shop.

“My husband thought I was crazy because we had no experience in retail, the restaurant business or even coffee.  But I just really felt called to do it,” said Wright. 

The musical theatre major wasted no time.  That afternoon she found a spot for the shop and signed a lease.  In less than three months, the shop – which could only seat 12 people – was open for business.

“Our biggest challenge was that we did not anticipate how we would be embraced,” says Wright.  “Literally we would have a line out the door and around the building almost every day.”

Over the next few months, the shop would move to donated space, where the number of employees doubled to 40, and there was plenty of room to accommodate the crowds that were coming for its custom blends, frappes and sweet treats.  While accommodations for some employees had to be made, many of them came about organically as part of Wright’s business strategy.  She approached the shop’s processes from a standpoint of what would be done for her own child, who could one day work there.  Playing cards, for example, are used at the checkout.  That way cashiers have better visual supports to track people’s orders instead of names.  The shop also uses automated machines to steam milk and other ingredients so employees don’t have to worry about those details and can spend more time talking to customers.  It’s an approach that capitalizes on employees’ abilities, while positively changing their lives.

“Most of our employees have never had a job before and certainly have never been paid competitive wages,” says Wright.

With more than 80% of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities unemployed according to many reports, Wright is hoping to be an example. 

“It’s just really the point of the coffee shop, that other businesses see our success and they realize they can at least hire one person with I/DD,” says Wright.  “We’re also really trying to reach people who have never thought about this problem before.  So many people walk through our doors and they don’t know what they’re getting into.  They think they’re getting a cup of coffee and they walk out with much more.”

Wright’s success in expanding opportunities for those with I/DD has led to expansion of the chain.  Two other shops, one in Charleston and one in Savannah, have opened in the last two years.  And, there are plans to open another in Annapolis soon. 

Her work has not gone unnoticed.  CNN selected her for their recent Heroes award, and this summer, she will receive Civitan International’s World Citizenship Award.  It’s a recognition rarely given by the organization with a very short recipient list that includes President Dwight Eisenhower and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

“It’s an incredible honor to receive this award and be mentioned in the same sentence as these folks.  I’ve really been trusted with an awesome job of moving the needle and helping people see people differently and the fact that people have reacted the way they have and have chosen to recognize me for this work is icing on the cake.  It’s enough for me to know I am creating a better world for my kids,” says Wright.

The entrepreneur admits this is just the beginning of the journey for Bitty and Beau’s, with plans to expand nationwide and even overseas, where employment rates for people with I/DD are even more alarming. In the meantime, she will keep sharing her message of awareness and acceptance.

“I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I will change the world for you,” Wright frequently tells her children.  She is, by all accounts, doing just that.