Aaron Seldomridge hits the Ephrata Starbucks for more than just a quick jolt of caffeine.
In the past few months, the coffee shop at 840 E. Main St. has become a refuge of unwavering acceptance for Aaron, an almost-22-year-old with autism and an affinity for Iced Chai Tea Lattes.
Aaron, who has limited verbal skills and doesn’t initiate interactions, uses a picture menu to order and make purchases at most restaurants and stores.
At first, he needed one at Starbucks, too.
“Now he orders on his own ... he pays and out the door he goes,” says barista Anisa Dujnic, who has formed a special bond with Aaron and his family.
Aaron’s regular chai runs take just minutes, but they leave a lasting impact: He gets a chance to practice new skills and feel connected to a green-aproned community committed to helping him grow.
Aaron’s parents, Janiece and Jeffrey, of Narvon, especially appreciate seeing their son treated like a “regular” by people who don’t look at him strangely if he flaps his arms or shrieks with excitement.
“We all want to be recognized ... in a positive way, instead of, ‘Hey, here’s that kid who comes in and spins around,’ ” Janiece says. “I wish more people understood that everybody has value.”
If Aaron’s name sounds familiar, it might be because Aaron’s Acres, a local summer camp and recreation program for young people with special needs, was named for him back when he was a kid.
Aaron attended autistic support classes in Eastern Lancaster County schools until he turned 21. His parents now focus on boosting his community participation and teaching others how to best support him.
“To me, the real learning is in the community,” says Janiece, who spends most of her time with Aaron. “My objective in all of this is to prepare for when we’re gone, and if somebody wants to take Aaron somewhere, then that place knows how to support him.”
She laughs. “That’s kind of my goal in life. It’s just a small one.”
At the pharmacy and fast-food restaurant, Aaron practices greeting people and waiting his turn in line. He volunteers at a hair salon and computer repair shop, where he learns how to sort items, ask for help and stay quiet when someone is on the phone.
Aaron finds exceptional acceptance, respect and support during his twice-a-week trips to the Ephrata Starbucks, Janiece says.
“This is a group of people that have totally, unequivocally and without judgment accepted Aaron and just come together to have it be a good experience for him each and every time,” she says.
It started with Dujnic’s special effort to engage Aaron, Janiece says.
The Seldomridges first visited Starbucks soon after it opened in March. Aaron can be a pretty picky eater, so Janiece was surprised when he wanted to try her iced chai latte.
He loved it.
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Dujnic, a certified elementary school teacher who currently works full-time at Starbucks, first met Aaron when Janiece inquired about a menu that included pictures. On Aaron’s next visit, Dujnic spotted him in line and came over with the picture menu.
“She ... asked if we wanted to practice,” Janiece wrote in an email to Starbucks’ customer-service department. “She pointed to each item and directed Aaron to do the same. She even gave him a high-five at the end. Then she ... said, ‘C’mon, Aaron, let’s get you a straw.’ “
From then on, other baristas followed Dujnic’s lead, greeting Aaron by name and helping him order. Eventually Aaron placed his own order verbally, then sat on a stool at the counter to wait for his drink.
The Starbucks staff greeted his milestone with cheers, applause and even a few goose bumps, Janiece says.
On a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon visit to Starbucks, Aaron jumps and paces excitedly en route to the counter.
“Hey Aaron,” Dujnic greets him. “Are you ready to order? What are you getting?”
“Grande Iced Chai Tea Latte,” Aaron answers quickly.
Aaron uses a Starbucks iPhone app to pay. Moments later, his chai is ready. Aaron giddily drains the drink — he recently switched to nonfat, at his mom’s request — through Starbucks’ signature green straw.
Dujnic, a newlywed who lives in Sinking Spring, has worked for Starbucks for five years. She previously substituted several days a week in a classroom for young children with autism and hopes to land a full-time teaching job in the near future.
“People think (people with autism) can’t communicate,” she says. “It’s not like we communicate, but they do communicate.”
Dujnic, who received a Starbucks MUG (Moves of Uncommon Greatness) award for outstanding customer service earlier this summer, insists there’s nothing special about the way she treats Aaron.
“I’m just doing my job,” she says. “He’s a customer like anybody else.”
That’s exactly the point, Janiece says. Parents of children with special needs shouldn’t fear community outings, she says. Asking the right questions will lead to what she calls the “gatekeepers of community access, acceptance and respect.”
People like Dujnic.
“Once they are identified, great things happen,” Janiece wrote to Starbucks. “Anisa opened the gates for Aaron, and I will be forever grateful.”
• Businesses all over Lancaster County give great customer service. Have you interacted with an exceptional employee? Share your experience in the comments below, or email mschweigert@LNPnews.com