Beth Schatz Kaylor
 
 
    
 
Sandy and Matt McMerty with their children, Christian (13), Finn (11) and Parker (9). (Megan Milbradt)
 
 

 
Warm drinks and warm smiles are served up daily at the Gifted Bean, located inside the Bismarck Veteran's Memorial Public Library on South Fifth Street. (Megan Milbradt)
 
 

 
Christian McMerty (Megan Milbradt)
 
 

Cristian McMerty isn't your average 13 year old. A seventh-grade student at Horizon Middle School, he loves reading thick tomes about knights and military history. He has a comprehensive collection of Scooby-Doo comics. He can impress you with his mastery of technology. He also happens to have Down syndrome, and thanks to his parents Matt and Sandy McMerty, Cristian is the bright spark that spurred them to purchase the Gifted Bean Coffee House in September 2014.

"Ever since he was a wee little lad, we wanted something for Cristian. We have always talked about building a place where he can earn his own pay and take pride in his work," says Matt McMerty, who also owns and manages Docustore, a records management solutions company. "Running the coffee shop can be a lot of work, but any time I hesitate, I remember that this isn't for us. This is for Cristian."

Like they say on their Facebook page (facebook.com/thegiftedbean), the Gifted Bean Coffee House is the small start of a BIG dream. Located in the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library at 515 South Fifth Street, the Gifted Bean serves coffee, espresso drinks and smoothies along with soups, sandwiches and sweets. However, unlike many coffee shops, the Gifted Bean is actively building toward a future of greater opportunities for persons with disabilities -- including the McMerty's own son.

"We have big dreams for the Gifted Bean, but we need to learn how to make a latte first!" says Sandy McMerty, who is also a coordinator of Designer Genes, a local Down syndrome support network. "We're taking this first year to understand the business, tweak recipes and make it our own. But eventually we'd like to be able to hire persons with disabilities."

The coffee shop presents an ideal work situation for persons with disabilities, due to the number of relatively simple, routine tasks involved in daily operations.

So far, community support for the Gifted Bean has been overwhelming.

"It was actually a shock to me," says Matt McMerty. "We've had so many people coming in, telling us how they really like what we're doing here."

Sandy echoes the support they've received in their new venture.

"To be honest, it hadn't occurred to me that others would look at this as inspirational. We were just on a mission to fulfill this dream we had talked about for Cristian," she says.

Inspiration for the Gifted Bean came from other successful businesses owned and run by individuals with Down syndrome, such as Tim's Place in Albuquerque, a café where owner Tim Harris offers free hugs to his customers (60,000 hugs and counting); Poppin' Joe's Gourmet Kettle Korn outside of Kansas City, where Joe Steffy runs a popcorn distribution business; and ceramics by Christian Royal, who creates and sells beautiful pottery in South Carolina.

"We want to create a place where people can come and think differently about persons with disabilities, whether the guy who wipes down your table has cerebral palsy or the young woman who makes cookies has Down syndrome. You have this experience where you feel warm and welcome, warmhearted because you can see how you are giving back, and you have met someone with a disability that you see as more than what you may have thought," Sandy McMerty says.

Cristian's brother and sister, Finn (age 11) and Parker (age 9), have also found reasons to love the Gifted Bean.

"I like the triple berry smoothie with banana ... and the peanut butter bars!" says Finn.

"YES!" exclaims Parker in agreement. "The peanut butter bars are super good."

Although Matt McMerty is currently the main barista at the Gifted Bean, the whole family pitches in, and their energy and spirit for their new coffee endeavor hasn't gone unnoticed.

"The McMerty family brings a positive energy to the library," says Christine Kujawa, library director at Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library. "The coffee shop has always been an asset to us, since the library is no longer just a place to check out books -- it's also a gathering place, a hub for our community. Matt and Sandy recognize this, and we all look forward to working with them."

For the McMertys, coffee may be the key to a bright future for Cristian.

"Often we set the bar too low because we think somebody can reach it, and I find that sad," says Sandy. "I'd much rather set the bar high and maybe fail, but see what we can make happen."

Being active in building support networks for kids with disabilities, the McMertys are accustomed to brushing off any naysayers -- even in their own extended family.

"My dad, being the cautious type, took the opportunity to remind me, 'You know, Cristian might not be able to do this, this coffee shop thing,'" recalls Sandy.

"I smiled and said, 'Yeah, Dad ... but what if he can?'"



 
Beth Schatz Kaylor is a communications professional and freelance writer. She blogs about her North Dakota kitchen at rhubarbandvenison.com.