By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
Unless U opened an ice cream shop on its campus Aug. 6 staffed by and serving its special needs students.
Unless U Scoops, with its wallpaper decorated using student drawings of whimsical ice cream in cones, bows and sundaes, serves Big Spoon Creamery products to the public at Unless U’s campus in Vestavia Hills.
“Unless U Scoops is an ice cream shop where students will have the opportunity to receive job training, and we will be selling ice cream to the public,” founder and Executive Director Lindy Cleveland said, in a video celebrating the new shop. “We also wanted to create a space where the students would be employed, because we know that jobs provide purpose and we wanted to create the opportunity for our students to wake up and feel purposeful every day.”
A 2013 study commissioned by the Special Olympics and conducted by the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that only 44% of working-age adults with intellectual disabilities are in the labor force, with 21% unemployed and 28% having never held a job.
While Unless U has been offering academic, social, physical and spiritual programming to support students’ independence, the ice cream shop gives students vocational support.
Students began receiving their food handler certificates from the Jefferson County Department of Health in late July.
“It’s so much bigger than ice cream,” Unless U Scoops Manager Meredith Binkley said, in a released statement. “It’s watching our students gain confidence and pride in themselves as they learn a new skill and excel. It’s fostering an environment of inclusivity and understanding as we welcome those who may have never had the privilege of working with those like our students before. It’s learning to love others who are different than you and showing Jesus to every person who walks through those doors.”
After breaking ground on the Unless U Campus in 2018, the organization announced that the facility would include an ice cream shop about a year later.
According to a release, the idea for the shop was inspired by Cleveland’s older brother, Jordan Williamson, and his experiences living with Down syndrome.
Cleveland’s first choice for a partner was Big Spoon Creamery because of the quality of their product and the way their missions in the community align.
“Everything Unless U does aligns so well with what we value as a company,” said Ryan O’Hara, owner of Big Spoon Creamery along with his wife, Gerri-Martha O’Hara.
The couple started Big Spoon in 2014 serving artisanal, small-batch ice cream out of an ice cream trike. They set out to use ice cream as a vehicle to make positive change in the community.
Before meeting Cleveland, the couple had little knowledge about Unless U, O’Hara said, “but it was something I knew we had to be a part of as soon as she pitched the idea.”
The idea for Unless U Scoops sounded similar to a national coffee company with which O’Hara was familiar, Biddy & Beau’s Coffee.
Biddy & Beau’s was established in 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina, by Amy Wright, mother to two children with Down syndrome. It now is a multi-location chain that focuses on employing staff with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to being highlighted by a number of national media outlets, Wright was named 2017 CNN Hero of the Year.
In seeing the community support for Biddy & Beau’s, O’Hara said he knows that Unless U Scoops will be a success.
One of his favorite aspects of the project is that it exemplifies Big Spoon’s philosophy that ice cream is more than just a dessert.
“Ice cream is always about more than food, it’s an experience,” O’Hara said. “It’s celebratory; it’s fun; it’s meant to be shared with others. I can’t wait to see how our friends at Unless U impact their community through sharing these type of experiences.”
The Big Spoon team has been involved throughout the process of conceiving and opening the ice cream shop, even helping Unless U develop its own unique ice cream flavor.
Scoops Signature Flavor is made from a cake batter ice cream with sprinkles topped with a “uni-cone” in a nod to Unless U’s school mascot, the unicorn.
Other flavors that have made it on the opening menu include standards such as vanilla, chocolate and cookies ‘n’ cream; as well as Beach Bonfire, which is smoked coconut vegan ice cream with vegan fudge and vegan/gluten-free graham crumble; and Blueberry Cobbler, which is vanilla ice cream with blueberry jam and sour cream cobbler top pieces.
“It has been a life-changing experience to have a chance to spend time around their students, and to play a small part in giving them purpose is so meaningful to us,” O’Hara said.
Unless U Scoops will be a space where members of the community will see Unless U students not through the lens of their disability, but their work serving up scoops of ice cream.
The store hours will be Tuesdays through Thursdays, 1-6 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 1-8 p.m.; and Sundays, 1-6 p.m. The shop will be closed on Mondays.
For more information, visit unlessu.org.