Dozens stood on the sidewalk in front of what is being billed by West Chester University officials as a one-of-a-kind convenience store.
It was the grand opening celebration of The Ram Shop. It carries the typical items you would find in any convenience store. However, its staff consists of degree-seeking students who are on the autism spectrum.
“The mission of this is to provide work opportunities for these students who are very capable, but because they’re on [the] autism spectrum, they have certain challenges,” said university president Chris Fiorentino. “Of course, we are educating students, but we’re also interested in preparing them to be ready for the world of work.”
The shop, a teaching-working model on Linden Street at the edge of campus, held a grand opening celebration Friday. It provides hands-on training for students to practice social and professional skills.
There’s also a new mural on the back wall of the shop created by student designers Kayla Degenshein and Taylor Goad. It boasts slogans like “Together we can” and “Inclusion is within everyone’s ability.”
On the second floor, students work on goals, study and hold group activities. There’s also a sensory-free area for students overwhelmed by loud noises.
It took 18 months to get the shop ready for the start of the fall semester.
Employment is not limited to students on the autism spectrum. Those not on the spectrum will be hired and trained on how to work with those who have autism.
Katie Lickfield is a junior professional studies major and member of the student group Dub-C Autism Program. She doesn’t work at the store, but said the Ram Shop is an important step toward inclusion for students with autism at West Chester.
“I want them to continue to have a career here until they graduate and have a full-time job in the future,” she said.
One of Lickfield’s friends works at the store and said she has noticed the difference the job has made in her life.
“She’s just full of joy,” Lickfield said. “I couldn’t be more proud of her and the difference made on every student here.”