‘Bolts Beanery’ fosters acceptance at Gillette school

Bolts Beanery staffer Austin Shearer, 18, hands a lemonade to Colter Praus, 16. The mobile coffee cart, operated by special education students at Thunder Basin High School, sells coffee, hot chocolate, lemonade and cookies. In addition to handling sales, the students shop for and make what they sell, learning about running a business and gaining valuable social skills interacting with their classmates throughout the school. (Photo by August Frank, Gillette News Record)

GILLETTE — As special education students wheeled a cart filled with cookies, coffee and lemonade around Thunder Basin High School, their customers stood in line and exchanged a few polite words with the young sales staff.

“How can I help you?” asked Patrick Howe, 18, who was handling the money and relaying orders to his business partners. They each wore deep blue vests with the Bolts Beanery logo and their names on them.

“I’m debating,” responded the student who’d came out of a classroom to make his purchases and was staring at the aromatic baked goods available on the cart. He had two cookie choices, chocolate chip or white chocolate chip. Two cost just $1 and there also was lemonade and coffee for another $1 each.

The best sellers by far are chocolate chip and lemonade.

Another customer presented the sales staff with an envelope of orders from all the students in her class.

“How nice,” Howe responded.

Others received high fives and questions about how they were doing. Math students chatted with their entrepreneuristic peers while waiting for their cookies and drinks.

Bolts Beanery is something TBHS students and staff look forward to when it’s open.

The rolling snack cart is averaging sales of about $400-$450 a week. But the payoff for the student-run business is well beyond pocket change.

It all started a year ago after two special education teachers came up with the initial idea around Christmas. Then Principal John “Gib” Ostheimer gave about $250 in seed money to get it off the ground.

“I always say every high school kid has a dollar in their pocket,” said Andrea Gregson, one of the teachers who brainstormed the idea. Ostheimer also subscribes to that philosophy.

He said it was something he saw on a smaller scale at another school and he’s not above stealing good ideas.

He said that especially interacting with other Thunder Basin students, “a lot of these students socially were not very comfortable or confident.”

So he thought the Bolts Beanery — a name the special education students suggested and voted on — could help with that.

At the time, their classroom had just one hand mixer and a coffee pot. The students already had a job of delivering mail and supplies to teachers at Thunder Basin. They are continuing that delivery chore this year. Jesse Haramja, 16, had the job last week.

Bolts Beanery stepped it up several notches.

What the teachers thought of as help for the teens to learn job skills and responsibility has turned into something with much more heart than they expected.

“Six weeks later I watched the kids. Our regular students now see and interact with them daily,” Ostheimer said.

The business has made the special education students feel a part of the school.

It started small, with students baking two batches of cookies a day. They were given a commercial mixer from the family and consumer science classes to help.

They now have three commercial-size mixers in their kitchen and while students hawk their cookies in the 50-minute fourth hour (10:43-11:33 a.m.), two to three others are baking cookies off a recipe the students worked on themselves until they got it right.

Joel Borring, 16, was the baker last week.

“It smells so good all day long, all day long,” repeated special education teacher Melissa Bower, who started at Thunder Basin this year and has overseen some of the expansion of the business.

“We knew the cookie recipe was good,” Gregson said. “The kids kept trying it until they liked it.”

That includes a “secret ingredient” the kids won’t reveal. Other students say the cookies are addictive.

“We started out with 65-70 cookies and we’d sell out right away,” Gregson said.

That has blossomed. Now the baker’s dozen special education students make four double batches a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

And they still sell out of their delicious inventory. They have added to their responsibilities by keeping track of supplies and sales, shopping and filling out and making daily deposits, with the help of aides Eliza McDale, Dusti Poppleton, Judy Crow, Kerri Carlton, Louise Harmon and Allie Baxter.

“He was very excited about this and supportive,” Gregson said of Ostheimer. He didn’t expect the Beanery to pay back his seed money so quickly, though.

“I didn’t expect it to grow so much,” Ostheimer said. “I never thought they’d make the money they make. Every dollar means that they’re interacting with one of our students.”

That’s the true bottom line.

“The general education students are exposed to the kids and they have embraced that,” said Michele Hayden, who’s observed the interactions as she interprets for a deaf student on the Beanery staff. “They’ve built a great relationship.”

As a result, some students have asked her how to say “thank you” in sign language.

She sewed the logos and names onto the sharp uniforms, something else the business associates had to approve with everyone having a vote.

The Beanery sells 15 to 20 cookies per class on average at each stop.

“We have kids who will chase us down the hallways,” Brower said.

One class ordered cookies for all 22 students. Two classes, with instructors Jannie Miller and Terri Hinkel, actually compete to see which orders the most cookies this year.

“We are their best customers,” declared Miller as she came out of her classroom.

The business has helped the special ed students with their motor skills, communication and learning responsibility. They can be fired, just like at a regular business, and have to re-apply if they want back in.

They conduct weekly business meetings themselves, write up the minutes, inventory their supplies and do the shopping each week at a local store. They work on math skills like fractions when they whip up batches of cookies based on a recipe.

“It’s given them huge confidence,” Brower said. “They struggle a little bit giving others compliments. I’m huge on inclusion and having student access. They know inclusion and acceptance here. And it goes both ways.”

The staff selects an employee of the week and will start a suggestion box next week.

A recent shopping order for a week included 18 dozen eggs, 14 boxes of butter, 18 big bags of chocolate chips, nine bags of white chocolate chips and 200 resealable plastic bags.

After expenses, the Bolts Beanery cleared $293 in its last four days of operation, including $93 on Thursday alone.

And the money?

The sales associates award two $500 scholarships to a Thunder Basin student each year, interviewing and selecting the winners. They go to a restaurant to eat each week and were at China King on Friday.

Once a month they spend a night at the movies and they’re talking about making an out-of-town trip sometime this school year.

The students volunteer at the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center and made Christmas wishes come true for four residents this year.

Overall, through the interaction and extension of the business, they’re learning to care for their neighbors and community.

Students also are considering local charities they may want to donate to as well.

The business has expanded by about six times from what it was a year ago, Gregson said, adding that some things never change.

The employees still have to do the dishes and deep clean the kitchen once a week and meet expectations. Each student rotates from one position to another, from baking to cart duty.

“We’ve had kids ask if they can buy the franchise,” Brower said. “It’s been amazing.”

Taylor Brower, 15, likes to chat with the customers. Austin Shearer is the shy one when it comes to talking to others.

But he shed that when he passed another boy in the hallway last week. Suddenly he received what he calls an “up down,” beaming broadly as he returned a high five, a down low and kicked up his heels as part of the greeting.

Even those like Weldon Steele with more obstacles than others get involved. He tapped a Bolts Beanery symbol on his iPad as students gave their orders. “Bolts Beanery!” the device declared said with an excited voice as they passed by.

All the other benefits are a bonus when it comes to the Bolts Beanery.

After a start at the TBHS effort, five former workers now earn paychecks from Smith’s grocery store through the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and there’s a chance they may be hired full-time once they graduate.

The special education students also volunteer and work at the Animal Medical Center, Campbell County Recreation Center and Campbell County Memorial Hospital and realizing their potential for working for a living one day.

That acceptance is what the Beanery and its addictive cookies have fostered at Thunder Basin High School. That’s what the organizers hope they will continue to sell out of daily.