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New nonprofit seeks to employ people with disabilities

A new Beaufort County nonprofit has a powerful mission: providing employment and public interaction for local people with physical and mental disabilities. Sweet Caroline’s Café received confirmation of its nonprofit status at the end of July and is now raising funds with the goal of opening a new café in Washington by 2020.

When that happens, however, the business will be unique in Beaufort County.

For Sharon Tyer and her daughter, Caroline, the nonprofit’s namesake, the goal of building a business to employ people with disabilities is deeply intertwined with their own stories. While Tyer is legally blind, Caroline was born with Down Syndrome.

“This is going to be, I hope, 100% operated by people with disabilities, whether its physical like mine with blindness or an intellectual disability like Caroline’s,” Tyer said.

When Caroline was born with Down Syndrome, Tyer had to learn to help her daughter adapt. At the same time she was learning how to better take care of her Caroline’s needs, Tyer began struggling with a disability of her own. Then in her late 20s, an eye disease caused her to become legally blind.

“You can either give up or you can face adversity and do the best you can with what you have,” Sharon Tyer said. “Life goes on. You have to keep going.”

With that attitude guiding her actions, Tyer returned to school to study special education. In doing so, she wanted to help Caroline’s growth, but also other children as well. Facing her disability head on, she committed herself to helping others. After earning her degree in 2004, she taught with Beaufort County Schools for three years before focusing her attention on home schooling Caroline.

Fast forward to 2016, and Tyer’s children are older. With her daughter’s graduation from Northside High School just a few years away, the question became, “What next?” To help answer that question, Tyer returned to school once again, this time studying rehabilitation and career counseling. During her internship with North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation, Tyer encountered people with disabilities working and earning a living, but they were often out of sight of the general public.

“All of that is great, but they’re not getting a lot of interaction with the general public,” Tyer said. “Being out in public, and I have experienced this myself, a lot of time people do not know how to interact with someone who looks or acts different. It’s not because there is a prejudice or anything against that person, but because they have not been exposed.”

That’s one of the goals of Sweet Caroline’s. Not only will the business provide good jobs for people with disabilities, but it will be a place where those with and those without disabilities can interact in a casual environment.

“It just seems like breaking bread with other people is such a universal thing to do to bring people together,” Tyer said.

Backing the efforts to establish the café, Tyer said she has the support of a strong board of directors, all of whom either have a disability of their own or a loved one living with a disability. The group is forging ahead with fundraising efforts and will have a presence at Smoke on the Water on Oct. 19 and the Christmas Expo in Chocowinity on Nov. 27.

Those wishing to learn more about Sweet Caroline’s Café or donate to the organization can visit the nonprofit’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sweetcarolinescafeinc/ Checks supporting the nonprofit can be made out to Sweet Caroline’s Café and sent to 102 Palmer Place, Washington, NC 27889, care of board member Kelly Cannefax.