EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Please don't get him started. Once Dr. Steve Bier starts making popcorn puns, he's off on a roll. Some of them are pretty salty. Most of them are corny. Ouch. The operator and force behind East Brunswick's Pop-In Cafe has the happy problem of success, and his joy is popping, too.
In 2004, Dr. Steve and his wife Dr. Barbie received a call from Robin Sims, a patient advocate, who wanted to let them know about a small family in need. Sam Omuoha, who is autistic, and his Mom had recently arrived in the area from Nigeria. They were in a strange place, without money, dealing with Sam's need for support and strength. Plus, it was Christmas.
Dr. Steve called Sam, and told him, "Well, we''ll go get you some Christmas." "So there we were, " he said , "A bunch of Jews trying to figure out what to do. I boutht a tree and had no idea how to get it on/in/around the car. I got tangled in lights. It was a real eye-opener."
Steve had not seen Sam or his mom for the past 11 years. That is, until an article about the Pop-In Cafe appeared in TAP into East Brunswick. The Umuoha family was one of many that visited the Pop-In Cafe, an alternative workplace for autistic adults, at the Brunswick Square Mall. The family had been loooking for their benefactors and was delighted at the reunion. Sam, who has grown into adulthood, will begin working at the Cafe' soon.
Dozens of autistic adults and their families arrived at the mall looking to become involved with the new business and to gain a level of independence as workers. Steve wrote their names down on retaurant checks and in notebooks, not having an "intake form" like a hospital or established care facility might. The need is great, and Steve's astonishment at the desire of the young people to work and build their self-concept was great.
Already working with the East Brunswick Public Schools Special Education and Support Services, the Pop-In Cafe, which serves sandwiches and flavored popcorn during mall hours, Has been adopted by the Falcon PALS of the Monroe Public Schools. Erica Freedman, District Transition Coordinator, and teacher Kathy Dillon told Steve, "We want to support you." The Monroe students offered to sell some tins of popcorn, and one is doing a mural in the cafe. After their first effort, the students wound up raising around $4,000 to support the cause by selling 250 tins of popcorn.
The Pop-In Cafe, under the guidance of Chef Agnes Cushing-Ruby, has been popping corn every workday since the holiday season began last month. Chef Ruby works "at least six hours every day and she won't take a penny, " says Steve. Tins vary in size and can contain up to three different flavors of popcorn. This week's specials were Thin Mint Cookie, Birthday Cake, and Cookies and Cream. Buffalo Wing, Jalapeno, and Cheddar were included in the standby favorites.
"If you get yourself independent, we have a job for you, " says Steve Bier to young workers looking to become part of the Pop-In experience "It's a two-way street. Autistic, disabled people and neuro-typical people need to understand the other people around them. Everyone benefits when people have the dignity of work."
Calling himself the "Tin Man, "(The pun warning came earlier) Steve Bier lives is a world of empty popcorn tins that need to be filled and eager people who need work. And, yes, he is also a doctor. Sometimes, he is also Santa. Just ask Sam Omuoha.
*Mention TAP into East Brunswick to get an employee discount on a popcorn tin at the Pop-In Cafe. Remember - refills are only 50% of the price - for life. Try the Thin Mint. You won't be disappointed.