"They get a paycheck. They walk through that door and are so excited, because they have a purpose in their life," Ruth Thompson tells PEOPLE

By Darla Atlas
Updated November 19, 2015 03:20 PM
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Darla Atlas

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On a recent morning before lunch service got underway at the Hugs Café in Mckinney, Texas, cashier Mike Sessom, 52, asked owner Ruth Thompson, 62, if the register had balanced the day before. No, she told him; they were $22 over.

“Over!” he said, reaching up to high-five her. She smiled and gently told him, “We like to balance.”

Thompson, known at the café as “Ms. Ruth,” is especially patient with 23 of her staffers, all of whom are adults with special needs. Sessom, for example, is a former teacher who sustained a brain injury in 1991 after being thrown from a car.

Although that day’s accounting was a bit off, “I’ll tell you what, this man can do cash,” Thompson says. “And he calls me every day when he gets home to thank me for the opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that can’t be found everywhere. The nonprofit restaurant, located just off the historic downtown square in McKinney, is the culmination of Thompson’s dream – literally.

“I had the same dream two nights in a row,” she tells PEOPLE. “It wasn’t this space, but there were tables and chairs, and people were serving customers. It was just a cheerful place.”

The second morning, she woke up and told her husband Chris about dreaming of a restaurant that would be run by adults with special needs and volunteers. His reply: “Well, I guess we’re gonna have to make this happen.”

Hugs Café opened on Oct. 13 and has done a booming business ever since.

“I haven’t seen any negativity. None,” Thompson says. “I’m sure the day will come, but the community is just embracing it.”

So are the workers. Kathy Lamprecht, 43, who has cerebral palsy, was originally hired to simply make the toast, because she has constricted movement in her hands and walks with a limp. She was underestimated.

“She’ll toast the bread, run over and make a salad, get the cookies out – this woman is a go-getter!” Thompson says. “Her mom says she sees a spark in her eyes that she hadn’t seen for years and years.”

Each worker with special needs, or “teammate,” is paired up with a volunteer or mainstream employee to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Mari Jennings, 56, a volunteer and retired special-needs teacher, recently stood with teammate Marty Cole near the front door to greet customers. Asked what she thinks about the restaurant, she chokes back tears.

“This gives them support and respect,” Jennings tells PEOPLE. “There aren’t many opportunities for these guys. It’s hard to find people who love them unconditionally.”

That’s where Thompson comes in. She knew that operating this type of restaurant would come with particular challenges, but she seems to know just how to handle them.

“One young man, a dishwasher, was working Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday,” she says. “I threw a Sunday in there, and it just really confused him. When he came in, I could see he was very agitated about the Sunday.”

So she looked at him and told him his new schedule in a singsong voice, while snapping: “Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.” Now, whenever someone asks him when he works, he’ll repeat it in the same musical pattern.

“So many of them are on the autism spectrum, and they like real consistency,” she says of the teammates. “But they’re just regular folks like the rest of us. We all have quirks; theirs just happen to be a little more visible.”

Kitchen manager Maria Caccavale, 49, was introduced to the special-needs population when she and Thompson worked together at a grocery store, which offered culinary classes to them.

“It’s just an exceptional group of awesome people,” she tells PEOPLE. “Ruth is the one I credit for helping me find my passion. And she’s one of my best friends.”

“Your only friend!” quips Sessom, the cashier.

Laughter – and hugs – are served in abundance at the Hugs Café. When one of their regular customers told her friend that she needed to go there for lunch, the friend asked, “Oh, but isn’t that a depressing place?”

“It’s anything but depressing!” Thompson says. “Everyone is always in a good mood. And when you walk out, you’ll also be in a good mood.”

Once she started making her dream a reality, things almost magically fell into place. Take the location of the café, which once housed a pizza restaurant.

“I always said I wasn’t going to open it in downtown McKinney, because the real estate is too expensive,” she says.

But one day, after peering into the space and realizing it would be perfect, she noticed that the contact for leasing the space happened to be a friend of hers from church.

“That Sunday, she sat right down in front of me,” she adds. “I don’t know what the sermon was about that day; I didn’t hear it.

When she asked her friend about the space, “she started crying and said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the perfect location for Hugs Café. I want you in my space.’ The deal they’ve given us is incredible, she says.

While the restaurant does make money, it all goes back into the company in the hopes of opening another café just like it and putting more adults with special needs to work.

“We’re giving them a purpose,” she says of the teammates. “They get a paycheck. They walk through that door and are so excited, because they have a purpose in their life.

“Our vision,” she adds, “is to have a Hugs Café in every community.”