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New Calgary coffee shop breaking down barriers: ‘What makes us different makes us great’

Click to play video 'Calgary coffee shop serves up unique experience' Calgary coffee shop serves up unique experience
Paul Constance started Lil E Coffee Cafe in hopes of helping those with developmental challenges find employment while raising awareness in Calgary. His three-year-old daughter Ella was born with Down syndrome and was an inspiration for the shop. Jenna Freeman reports – Feb 8, 2021

Paul Constance was on a business trip with fellow entrepreneurs when he was introduced to the idea of creating a coffee shop that catered to a unique employee.

Constance’s daughter Ella was born with Down syndrome, and a fellow businessman showed him a business model in the United States in North Carolina.

“She opened a store [where] they all have Down syndrome employees,” Constance explained. 

Lil E Coffee Cafe officially opened in Sun Life Plaza in Calgary last week. Constance partnered with a friend who was leasing space in the building and created the coffee shop.

Read more: Man with Down syndrome enjoys ‘giving back to our community’ at Calgary supermarket

I’m hoping people experience just the pure magic,” he said.

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“Every day they make you smile. They make you laugh and you forget what’s going on in your life.

“Whether it’s Down syndrome or autism, with an intellectual or developmental disability, we think that’s a niche that’s really a missing opportunity. We just want to give awareness in the community,” Constance said.

Click to play video 'Ignite your inner artist while also supporting local creators with developmental disabilities' Ignite your inner artist while also supporting local creators with developmental disabilities
Ignite your inner artist while also supporting local creators with developmental disabilities – Dec 2, 2020

Rhiannon Taylor said it’s been her dream to work in a coffee shop.

“I’m learning a lot about the cash register,” said Taylor. “It feels like home to me in a lot of ways.”

Darby Taylor is a celebrated Special Olympics athlete but he said working at Lil E has given him different opportunities he’s dreamed of.

“It’s been really hard for me find a job,” Taylor explained.

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“I’ve been trying to find a job — like a full, paid job — for awhile… since 2013.”

Taylor said he hoped the skills he acquired would help him gain employment at the new Calgary Flames arena when it opens.

Read more: Employees with autism: How they can be an asset to any company

“It gives me confidence. Just coming in here and greeting the customers and that they’re so patient with me and our employees because having autism is a hard challenge.”

Constance hoped that Lil E would also raise awareness in Calgarians about what it’s like to navigate life when developmentally challenged.

“It’s been an incredible journey to give these individuals an opportunity and that’s really what it morphed into.

“Now it’s not a coffee store but a platform to give them some experience.”

Constance said that he has been grateful for the support from donors and Calgarians that have stopped by Lil E.

Alana, Paul’s wife and Ella’s mother, said she has been overwhelmed by the reaction to the coffee shop and hopes it brings inclusion and awareness of different disabilities.

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“What I have learned from Ella is that having Down syndrome does not define who she is,” she said.

“When we received the prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, there was so much uncertainty. There were questions, there were tears, but what we didn’t know is that she would be one of the greatest blessings in our lives.”