Treat yourself to breakfast, lunch, or a snack at the Together Café and meet the GCSSSD Career Center and RCSJ ACT students who make each visit a bright spot in your day. Pictured left to right: Matthew Madara, Michael Givens, Michael Boughman, Alethea Clark, Lindsay Norcross, Jarrett Henson, Devon Riggs, Brandon Thompson, Cristina Hernandez-Tapia, Michael Caporale, and John Sztenderowicz.
GOING FURTHER TOGETHER AT THE TOGETHER CAFÉ
The Together Café, tucked inside the lobby of the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine's location on Rowan College of South Jersey's (RCSJ) Gloucester campus, provides a delicious example of how leaders in education, healthcare, and local government can work together to support the social and economic inclusion of young people with disabilities.
The café is the product of a unique collaboration between RCSJ, the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM), the Rowan-Virtua Integrated Special Needs Center of Rowan University (RISN), the County of Gloucester, and the Schools for Neurodiversity at the Gloucester County Special Services School District (GCSSSD). Its goal is to create job training and employment opportunities for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities and to promote their inclusion in all aspects of community life.
The vision for the Together Café had been brewing for years in the mind of Dr. Jennifer M. LeComte, DO, FAAP, FACP, Director of the RISN Center and Associate Professor of Internal Medicine & Pediatrics at Rowan-Virtua SOM. LeComte has a passion for what she calls “unified events" which provide people of all levels of ability with opportunities to work, learn, and play together. Through her role at the RISN Center – a primary care practice located in the Rowan-Virtua SOM building that is dedicated to serving individuals with physical, intellectual, and developmental disabilities – she wanted to enable those opportunities for her students, patients, and fellow healthcare professionals via the café.
“It's certainly beneficial for the café's workers. They learn skills for gainful employment, they increase their confidence, and I'm hopeful that they have rewarding experiences with our medical community here," explained LeComte. “But I would almost say that our community and our medical students benefit even more through gaining exposure to people with different abilities and seeing them as successful citizens in our community, rather than focusing on their specific syndrome or health inequities."
“A lot of medical students and residents, and often even physicians, only see people with differing abilities at their sickest moments," she continued. “Many people in healthcare don't get to see them thriving and that can encourage ableism and other biases. I think the Together Café helps to overcome that ableism."
The café is run by the GCSSSD's Career Center in partnership with the Adult Center for Transition (ACT) program at RCSJ. It had a soft opening in March of 2023. Students from both campuses, some of whom are also RISN Center patients, have been involved in all day-to-day café operations with oversight and assistance from GCSSSD and ACT staff.
“It seemed too good to be true for this beautiful, state-of-the-art space to become a working classroom, as well as a service to doctors, medical students, patients and their caregivers," remarked Cindy Fornes, Clinical Coordinator for GCSSSD and Clinical Consultant to the ACT program. “We stayed true to our vision, despite some hurdles . . . Less than a year later, here we are. And I couldn't be more proud or more grateful for the resources, support, and hard work that has gone into this collaborative partnership."
The Career Center and ACT are two programs with a common goal – to afford young people with disabilities the vocational, educational, and social skills necessary to live fulfilling and independent lives. Many students who graduate from the GCSSSD Career Center program become students at RCSJ through ACT, where they continue to build their career and academic skills.
“ACT students take a career readiness class where they explore all the different internship experiences available to them through RCSJ and its partners, including the Together Café," outlined Ramon Casanova, Executive Director of ACT. “When students are ready, we help them apply to their desired internship and provide interview prep and feedback. Once they receive an offer and complete some targeted job training, their internship begins."
ACT Support Specialist, Halee Amburg, who attends café shifts with the programs' students twice a week, describes her role as “not that much different than a supervisor in a Wawa." She currently works alongside 13 of the program's students for their two-hour shifts at the café, providing oversight, assistance, and encouragement.
“I'm basically just there to support our ACT students," explained Amburg. “For inventory and stuff like that, support usually just means giving reminders. We all need reminders sometimes. l might help out a little more when they make salads or prep breakfast sandwiches, and I'm also always available to help anyone who is on the register."
That support is appreciated by ACT students including Lindsay Norcross, who lists her ACT teachers among the things she likes best about working at the Together Café: “I like organizing. I like putting the chicken salad or tuna in containers, and the grapes and fruits. I like spending time with my teachers."
Fellow ACT student, John Sztenderowicz, also enjoys working at the Together Café: “I check the drinks to make sure it's full. I make a lot of salads. Things like that. I'm trying to learn on the register more and more. My favorite part is the register."
The café is open from 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Mon., Wed., and Fri.; and from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Tues. and Thurs. It serves a variety of affordably priced, grab-and-go snacks and beverages along with breakfast sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza, and a rotating menu of options from the fryer.
“I have been part of the ACT program for two years and I really enjoy it. I especially like working at the Together Café," said Michael Caporale. He was happy to suggest a menu item for anyone unsure of what to order: “Probably the fries. They're really good. Definitely a must-have."
The expertise of the GCSSSD – who successfully run several other cafés, including the Puzzle Piece at the Bankbridge Development Center and the Hawk's Nest in Bankbridge Regional School – has proven to be an invaluable asset. Along with the hard work of Career Center and ACT staff members and students, that expertise has led the Together Café to a model that works. They celebrated that achievement on Nov. 15, with an official grand opening party.
“This program took a lot of collaboration and experimentation to come up with a model that would really serve our students," reflected Dr. Guy Davidson, Dean of Academic Advancement & Special Services at RCSJ and Chairperson for the College's newly announced Academy of Neurodiversity. “The result is a fantastic, functional little spot where students from two programs I care about very deeply are learning job skills and having a great time doing it. All while meeting the needs of SOM and RCSJ students, faculty and staff who now have an easy and affordable spot to grab a bite to eat."
The Together Café has already expanded to offer catering services for events around campus, including RCSJ's Academy of Neurodiversity Groundbreaking Ceremony and Rowan-Virtua SOM's “Art is Medicine" event, featuring the work of award-winning photographer, Rick Guidotti's,
Positive Exposure project, which now hangs in the café.
“This café will become the food service provider for this College," confirmed Dr. Frederick Keating, President of RCSJ. “I'm very proud of the young people working here. Thanks to their hard work and the work of our partners, we're going to continue to make this thing bigger and better."
The Together Café has been such a success that RCSJ is already looking for opportunities to open additional locations on its campuses in the coming months. The intention is to staff those locations with former café interns who are ready to continue their professional growth as employees.
“I think for myself, and all of the partners involved in the Together Café, we're hoping that this becomes a model across the state and even beyond that," shared LeCompte. “Because it not only gives people of different abilities an opportunity to be gainfully employed, but in an educational venue this gives learners and members of the community an opportunity to break down barriers."
To learn more about the Together Café visit
RCSJ.edu/Cafe or find out more about RCSJ's ACT program at