Café Focused on 'Elevating' People with Disabilities Holds Auction to Stay Afloat During COVID

A community member launched the online auction for Ada's Cafe so the beloved Palo Alto establishment does not close

Ada's Cafe
The team at Ada's Cafe. Photo: courtesy Ada's Cafe

A Northern California community is rallying behind one of its most beloved cafés to ensure it stays open amid the ongoing pandemic.

Palo Alto resident Kathleen Foley-Hughes tells PEOPLE she initially came up with the concept of Ada's Cafe years ago as a way to help her son, Charlie, who has a developmental disability.

At the time, Charlie — who was born three months early alongside his twin brother Peter — was in middle school, feeling isolated from the rest of his peers and community.

Wanting to change that, Foley-Hughes, 60, asked his school if she could start a program to help Charlie, now 32, and other kids like him learn to bake in order to help them assimilate better into their community.

Her idea was ultimately successful and the vocational-education program expanded into the high school before it was later transformed into an actual café in Palo Alto.

Since the café's official opening in 2014, Ada's has become a neighborhood staple with a total of 50 employees — all of whom live with "a variety of challenges," according to Foley-Hughes.

Ada's Cafe
Kathleen Foley-Hughes with employees from Ada's Cafe. courtesy Ada's Cafe

"Some of them have PTSD. We've had refugees from Syria and El Salvador, amputees, people with traumatic brain injuries, people with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders. People with mental health challenges, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder," she explains.

"We're a wonderful little group of people that all get along under the focus of making great food and being really good to one another," she continues. "Every person, no matter their ability or disability, has a role within the café."

For some, like Charlie, their roles involve multiple responsibilities, from running the register and helping customers, to doing dishes.

Others have more simple roles, depending on their preference and comfort level. But one thing is certain: every employee gets a chance to try each task in the café.

"The model at Ada's is that everybody does everything and that we want you to try everything," Foley-Hughes explains. "Even if you're afraid, because you'll never know unless you try."

Ada's Cafe
Charlie Hughes and fellow Ada's Cafe employee, Kris Ferkol. courtesy Ada's Cafe

"Some of our employees' families have said, 'Don't let so and so run the cash register because he's terrible at math.' I say, 'You know what? We're going to give him a try,'" she continues. "People will rise to the level of expectation that you set for them... and there's always backup to help out in case you get stuck, but that's how you learn."

Over the years, Ada's has had its fair share of successes, even catering a local event in December 2019 for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

But, like many businesses, they've also faced several challenges this year due to COVID-19.

In March 2020, Foley-Hughes says she closed Ada's doors in an effort to protect employees, many of whom have underlying medical conditions.

"I saw what was happening in the hospitals and I couldn't imagine someone with an intellectual disability being put through that and then being separated from their family," she explains. "So we tried to keep everybody healthy."

The struggling café attempted to find ways to bring in income, such as providing meals-to-go, but was ultimately forced to close two more times for financial reasons in June and October.

Charlie Hughes meeting President Joe Biden. sarah sands

"We were losing so much money every day," Foley-Hughes says, adding that nearly every employee felt lonely during the closure. "They missed the structure. They missed the routine. They missed their coworkers. They missed being a part of something."

Eventually, in January, Ada's reopened with a limited menu and schedule, a quarter of their staff and outdoor seating.

Still, though, they were struggling to stay afloat and pay for the food, rent and labor costs — so Palo Alto resident Firoozeh Dumas jumped into action and launched an online auction.

Dumas, whose children went to school with Foley-Hughes' kids, tells PEOPLE she's been a longtime advocate for people with special needs and felt it was crucial to help keep Ada's open.

"America has always been a beacon of hope and if we cannot support a business like Ada's Cafe, what does that say about the soul of our nation?" she says. "A rising tide raises all boats and Ada's success is shared by every person with a disability around the world. Goodness reverberates and there is no greater source of goodness in my town than Ada's Cafe."

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The auction features a variety of items, including dinners, antique art, furniture, resort stays, virtual workshops, signed books and even an opportunity to meet film director Jessica Yu.

People can also donate money or purchase gift cards to help the auction reach its $250,000 goal.

"It's one amazing woman who gets stuff done," Foley-Hughes says of Dumas. "This has proved the incredible amount of love, support and belief [that exists] in others... It's really amazing."

As the auction prepares to close next week, Foley-Hughes says she's hopeful its proceeds will allow Ada's to continue operations and ultimately, help them to keep spreading good.

"In a world that feels out of control a lot of the time... we see a lot of good and that makes us want to do more and give back," she says. "We definitely feel like we're a part of something pretty special, and we have our own little piece of the world we're trying to make better."

Those interested in bidding or donating to the auction can do so here.

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