If you ask 28-year-old George Augstell what his dreams are, you would find they are not that different from those of other young men his age: get a job, move out of his parents’ house and get married.
Despite having Down syndrome, he hasn’t given up any of his dreams for independence.
He recently fulfilled one of his goals by opening his own coffee shop – Uncle Bill’s Coffee Stop, named after a favorite cop and uncle, the late William J. Gee Sr., who died of cancer at the age of 47 in 2013.
“I miss him,” said Augstell, who had a special relationship with his uncle. “It’s been hard for me and my family. I want this to be about his legacy – for Uncle Bill.”
Augstell makes a point of calling it a coffee stop because he wants people to stop in for a visit.
“I kind of like this place,” he said. “It feels like home.”
The shop is located in the newly opened 23,000-square-foot Golisano Center for Community Health, adjacent to Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. The center, which opened in May, provides comprehensive health care for adults with special needs.
The coffee shop is a partnership with Rivershore, Inc., an affiliate of People Inc. and the hospital, which donated the space in the Golisano Center and named Augstell the owner/operator. Support is provided by People Inc.
“The state has really wanted to support programs where people are out in their community and working and joining recreational activities, rather than in center-based types of programming,” said Harpreet Saran-Rokicki, director of self-directed services for People Inc.
She said the agency has helped others like Augstell, who works with a job coach to develop his own business plan.
She said the model they follow allows Augstell hire those who will work with him. His employee, Eddie Chew, a family friend, is a big fan and supporter of Augstell as well.
Augstell had been a popular volunteer at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center for the past three years. Augstell’s mother, Carol Gee, praised Memorial Medical Center CEO Joseph Ruffalo for his “bravery in putting forth George’s name as operator.”
But Ruffalo said it was Augstell who came into his office with the plan.
“I knew George through his volunteering, and he came to me and said he wanted to open up a coffee shop in the Golisano Center,” Ruffalo said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to have any junk – just doughnuts, bagels, muffins and pastries - but no junk.’”
Ruffalo said in the spirit and culture of inclusion and breaking down stereotypes that exist in the Golisano Center, Augstell’s business plan “made all the sense in the world.”
“If we tried to design this and create this from scratch, it wouldn’t have come out the way it has come out,” Ruffalo said. He added with a smile, “When he was leaning across my table telling me this is something he had to do, honestly, he didn’t give me a choice.”
Augstell has had a lot of firsts. He was the first student in the Niagara Falls School District’s inclusion program and was its first high school graduate. He attended People Inc.’s Young Adult Life Transition Program (YALT) at Niagara County Community College, which helps participants with developmental disabilities fulfill their goals.
The coffee stop in the Golisano Center is likely to serve as a beacon for other adults with developmental disabilities and for parents of children with developmental disabilities.
“You have a fantasy of what your child is going to be when they come into the world – who they are going to be, what they are going to look like, what they are going to accomplish - and they are grandiose,” Gee said. “Then, the baby is born, this beautiful baby, and you are given the diagnosis of Down syndrome. That just implodes all those visions for the child.”
But Gee said what Ruffalo and those at People Inc. have done is give that vision back.
“He can be a successful business owner,” Gee said. “That wasn’t on the table before.”
And Augstell said he is just getting started and has dreams to open a chain of coffee shops.
“I’d like to give other people like me jobs and help out in the community,” Augstell said. “I can be a good role model.”
His can-do attitude may be a family trait. Not only did his late Uncle Bill work in law enforcement, but another uncle, Hugh Gee, is a Lewiston town justice, and his mother is a former Niagara Falls School Board member.
Carol Gee said protective oversights, like those her son has from People Inc. to protect him from those who may take advantage of him, means he is able to open a business and will one day be able to marry and move out – but “not too far away,” she said in her best tiger mother voice.
Gee, an insurance coordinator at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, said she believes her son will be an example for parents who may be like she was more than 20 years ago when she got comfort in seeing a young woman with Down syndrome working in a restaurant.
“I’m hoping when people see him behind the counter serving coffee and handing out chips just like anyone else, they will see the future is not so scary, it’s not so bleak,” Gee said.
Nicole Forgione, marketing communications manager for People Inc., said Augstell is just one example of how the agency helps people with special needs achieve their goals and life dreams.
“We need to break those myths down,” Forgione said. “A person with Down syndrome or other type of disability can achieve their dreams. They can work. They can own their own store, enjoy all type of recreational activities, enjoy life.”