Milford students’ business ‘perks up’ Parsons Center

MILFORD >> Board of Education employees Wendy Kopanza and Meghan LaDore walked up to the snack and beverage cart in the Parsons Government Center and before even ordering, asked, “What’s the joke of the day?”

Emma Grace, a student in the school system’s transitional program for those with learning differences, replied, “What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire?” The answer: “Frostbite.”

Students like Emma who have completed their high school diploma, but are entitled to further special education are running an ever-expanding business, Parsons Perks, which gives them real-world working experience — and all the problem solving, math and social skills that go with it.

For employees in the large government center, the business provides sustenance without them having to leave the building. Prior to Parsons Perks opening about a year ago, the only food in the building was out of a vending machine.

Kopanza said it’s nice to know when you run out of the house in the morning, there are breakfast options waiting at work.

“I like the convenience and the smiling faces,” Kopanza said. “They’re always adding new items.”

LaDore said, “I love seeing their faces and I love their jokes.”

Parsons Perks was created by the school system’s transition coordinator, Joanne Barrett, as part of a Fifth Year Vocational Experience that she created to bring transitional students into the real world to build skills. As part of the program, students also have assignments at other businesses, including as room inspectors at Holiday Inn Express, retail organizers at Walmart, IT duties at IT Recovery Specialists, inventory control specialists at Schick and food preparation at Oscar’s Bistro. Sometimes, they also act as greeters at the first-floor entrance to the government center and give directions to visitors because the layout of the building confuses many.

Students get a stipend and any money above cost that they make pays for special student activities. The nonprofit Parsons Perks has done so well in this first year that they’ll also donate to three local charities.

“I think the potential for learning and experiencing growth is endless,” Barrett said of being in the work community. “Every day, there’s another opportunity.”

Barrett said the experience helps hone many skills including math, language, social interaction and planning. Students even help with ordering from vendors.

Board of Education Chairwoman Susan Glennon called Parsons Perks a “great initiative,” that fits with the district’s mission to help students be prepared to achieve at their highest level and supports the educational trend of offering students real-world experience.

“I know the entrepreneurs who staff the shop have become a welcome addition to the Parsons community,” Glennon said.

Students arrive at 8 a.m. weekdays and assemble their stand, make coffee and set up. They have a small kitchen and office. They can only sell pre-packaged food or fruit with a skin on it, but carry a wide variety, including yogurts, muffins, hummus, cheese snacks, granola bars, carrot/apple dippers, trail mix, chips, cookies, apples, bananas and Green Mountain coffee with several flavoring choices.

They look polished in maroon aprons that are embroidered: “Parsons Perks” and “A Community Café.”

Since opening about a year ago they’ve added a commercial-grade cooler, as required by health code to sell cold drinks, and holiday cards, gift boxes and more snack choices.

Parsons Perks is on the first floor outside the gymnasium at the end of a main corridor near the state Department of Motor Vehicles office, but each morning they take a cart of offerings — as well as the joke of the day — to each office in the building. One day a week they can deliver a lunch offered by the school system’s food department and are hoping to expand that pilot.

Barrett said it’s all been “very well-received” by workers in the building. By 10 on a recent morning they had already gone through their first dispenser of English toffee coffee.

Student Kristen Sheridan, 20, took the initiative when someone mentioned offering a “joke of the day,” and uses Google to find new ones to keep the laughter flowing and lift spirits.

Sheriden, who is majoring in hospitality at Gateway Community College, said some people come by the cart just to hear the joke. One woman brings the joke home to her teacher husband in another community and he shares it with his students.

“They love it,” Sheridan said of customers’ reaction to the joke. She said she “struggled with math in high school” and now that she has learned so much from making change and applying math in real-life situations, she likes and understands the subject.

Emma explained some other perks of the aptly named Parsons Perks. Customers get punch cards to receive their 11th cup of coffee for free, and once a month, there’s a drawing for $5 worth of gift cards to the business.

“This has helped me with money management,” she said. “We have our own bank accounts with our own debit cards.” Emma said she and the others have also learned about customer service, specifically to always be friendly.

There’s always a job coach or Barrett in the area. On a recent morning, a customer said, “Have a good day,” while walking away and the students, all tending to other tasks, overlooked responding, so Barrett said, “I don’t hear anyone.” They then all responded, telling the customer to have a good day, too.

Jack Shuckerow, 20, said he’s enjoyed learning to use a cash register.

“It’s pretty good,” he said of the Parsons Perks assignment.

Matt Toole, 20, a Housatonic Community College student, also works at Parsons Perks, but said he especially the IT work at another site.

Barrett said the program strives to open new doors for students — to teach them not to limit themselves, but to balance that with goals that are attainable.

“It just warms up the whole building,” Barrett said.