McKinney resident Ruth Thompson had a dream. Actually, she had the same dream two nights in a row. Her dream was about opening a nonprofit restaurant that employs adults with special needs, and after the second night her husband told her, “We’re going to have to do this.”
And that was that.
“I had never started a nonprofit. I’d never started a business, much less a restaurant,” says Thompson, proprietor of Hugs Cafe in downtown McKinney.
But this isn’t the first time she’s worked with adults with special needs. More than a decade ago, Thompson moved from Colorado to Dallas to be closer to her adult children. In Colorado she was the executive director of a program that provides respite care to families with loved ones with special needs. When she moved to Texas, she wanted to continue to work with adults with special needs, but she found there were very few opportunities in that line of work.
“And that meant there were also few opportunities for them,” she points out. “In 2004 I was doing my research and found that Texas at that time ranked 48th in state funding and programs for the special needs population. We have moved since that time to 50th, and very recently some other funds have been cut.”
That’s right: Texas is dead last, according to the National Cerebral Palsy Foundation, which does a study every year. Texas’ national standing usually fluctuates between 48th and 50th place, and we’re currently at 50.
“You know, when you’re below Mississippi, it’s kind of sad,” Thompson says. “That means it’s totally up to individuals to do something to make it better, which is fine. You ask all throughout your lifetime, or I did anyways, ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose?’”
She’s finally found it.
Thompson started working at Market Street in McKinney, teaching cooking classes for adults with special needs. From 2006 to 2012, she grew the program from six adults to more than 130 adults funneling through the program every month.
“Across the nation it is law that schools have to provide some kind of transitional program for adults with special needs after they graduate at age 18, so from 18 to 21 or 22 the school systems provide some kind of job training or something, and that’s who would generally come and take cooking classes from us.”
Sometimes her students would come to class excited that they’d landed a job.
“Everybody would be excited because someone got a job,” she says. “There was no animosity or jealousy. It was all celebration. Everybody wants a purpose. It wasn’t about making money; it was about having a job and getting to go somewhere and do something every day.”
In 2012 she dreamed about creating a restaurant to provide jobs for adults with special needs. Her family was on board immediately. They brought the idea to their friends, who were also eager to help. Thompson put together a board of directors and applied for nonprofit status, which she received in 2014.
And then there was fundraising. After doing more research, Thompson realized she needed about $1.5 million before her nonprofit could afford a location in a strip mall. She got to work.
“It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation,” Thompson says. “You have to have something people can touch and see because people don’t want to just give money to a dream. They’ll give, but they won’t really give.”
With a meager $8,000 in the bank, Thompson started shopping for available space. She’d already written off downtown McKinney as being too expensive, but she happens to go to church with Kim Sanchez, the landlord for several of the shops there. One Sunday Sanchez sat right in front of her at church. Afterward Thompson mentioned the idea to Sanchez, who was thrilled by the prospect.
“She made it affordable for us,” Thompson explains. “Now, we still needed money to move in because we had $8,000, which does not start a restaurant, but we went from needing $1.5 million to $150,000. So we got into heavy fundraising mode, and now we had something that people could see.”
A year ago Thompson opened Hugs Cafe, with no debt. Of course, that makes it sound easy. “Were there times during this whole process when you could find me in the corner in the fetal position? Absolutely,” Thompson says, laughing. “And the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Oh my gosh, I could write three books on it.” But it’s worth it when she goes to work and sees the smiles of her team members and hears their stories.
“The first year really has been amazing,” she says. “There are so many stories.”
Mike Sessom works the cash register. He used to love to play golf before he was in a head-on collision in December 1990. The accident damaged the left side of his brain, which impaired the right side of his body. He uses a walker and has difficulty talking, but he can do math just fine and write because he’s left-handed. He has worked at Hugs since it opened a year ago.
“I thank God every day,” Sessom says. “I could be at home feeling sorry for myself and having people help me, but that ain’t me. Can I brag a little bit? I was sick last week and a lot of people missed me.”
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And that’s everything, just like it is to the other 21 team members working to create Hugs Cafe's menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and sides. Thompson isn’t stopping there. There are more than 47,000 individuals with special needs in Collin County alone, and she’d help them all if she could. On top of employment, Hugs also provides cooking classes in the evening and an urban garden in the back to provide opportunities for individuals who aren’t able to work in a restaurant. Thompson hopes this will be the first of many Hugs Cafe locations.
“The long-term goal is to put [a Hugs Cafe] wherever we can fit one,” she says. “The need is too great. What we’re doing here is a tiny drop in a huge swimming pool.”
But it’s an important drop.
“We’ve got 22 adults with special needs and at least 22 success stories,” Thompson says.