Alex Ferguson of South Berwick was quiet and shy, afraid to look people in the eye when she started working at Madison’s Cafe in South Berwick two years ago. Today, at 24, Alex is friendly and open, sometimes even kidding around with diners.
Dan Patstone, 23, and also from South Berwick, had to learn to use the cash register, how to take orders and what to say to customers to make them feel at home. Today, he gets along famously with diners, who all know and love him.
These two young adults and more than a dozen other employees who live with intellectual or social disabilities are proof of the success of Madison’s Café, a business created with a mission to hire, teach and bring an income to people with disabilities.
At the same time, owner Nicole McCoomb admits, the economics have been challenging. To help with this challenge, she has planned a fundraiser for Thursday, July 11, at Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick during a showing of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” As it happens, this play features a character that faces very challenges facing many of McCoomb’s employees.
The “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” which opens July 3, is based on the best-selling book of the same name about a 15-year-old autistic boy who solves the secret of a murdered dog – and in the process solves several other mysteries.
A 2015 Tony award-winner for best play, “Curious” premiered October 2014 on Broadway. Critics have been impressed by its ability to convey the point of view of the boy with autism as well as his compassionate school mentor.
Before the show, McCoomb will speak briefly about the café, its employees and her own daughter Madison, for whom the café was created and named. McCoomb was worried about her daughter, who had been labelled on the spectrum and understood employment could be difficult. Madison's employee Alex Ferguson and her dad, Rich Ferguson, will also say a few words at the fundraiser.
Hackmatack will give to Madison’s Cafe a portion of the tickets sales for that night’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” a story whose protagonist is on the autism spectrum.
Two years to the day after the restaurant opened, McCoomb looked back at the way her vision unfolded.
“There’s nothing more heartwarming than to see than these kids who came in for jobs and how much they have grown,” McCoomb said, noting the 85 percent unemployment rate for people on the spectrum with college degrees. “They love being here. They get social. They make eye contact, and they are very eager to learn.”
Each ticket Madison’s sells for the July 11 showing of the play will raise $10 or $15 for the café, depending on if it’s a full price or a senior ticket.
Madison’s is one of a half dozen other groups that will benefit this summer from this fundraising opportunity offered by Hackmatack’s Playhouse. Through these fundraisers, organizations sell their own tickets and are invited to use Hackmatack’s grounds to host picnics, sell wine, cheese and dessert, or provide informational tables.
Among the other organizations that will hold Hackmatack fundraisers are Berwick Library and the Dover chapter of PEO Sisterhood, an international group that provides educational opportunities to women around the world.
For playhouse owner Michael Guptill, this program is a win-win.
“I love to have Hackmatack support good causes,” he said, “and the organization gets to make money in a fun way, without doing a lot of work or fundraising.”
Sean Roy of York, who co-owns Madison’s, says he has learned that the disabled community is a ready and willing job pool.
“These are some of the best employees I’ve ever had,” said Roy, a childhood friend of McCoomb’s. “You have to learn how to teach them differently, so it’s like we are also going to school. ’m learning from them at the same time we are teaching them their jobs.”
Although McCoomb’s daughter, Madison, is just graduating from high school this year and has not worked at the restaurant yet, McCoomb has received gratitude from other parents.
“Alex’s dad called me over one day,” she recalled. “He saw her working and said, ‘my daughter has never been like that in her life’ and he started crying.”
For tickets to the "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" fundraiser, write or call Madison’s at 207-749-6504.