If anyone needs an example of community-building in Wilton, they need look no further than to the Wilton Family YMCA, where ‘community’ is now literally on the menu. The YMCA — where serving the community is at the heart of the organization’s mission — has partnered with Community Steps, the transition program for Wilton Public Schools’ 18- to 22-year-old special education students, to open and run a café at the Wilton Y’s Danbury Rd. location.

The YMCA had a café in its lobby up until 2019 when facility renovations began. Since then, thanks in part to the pandemic, there’s been no food-service operation on the premises, even when the Y welcomed back members in 2020. 

But a chance conversation recently with Riverbrook Regional YMCA CEO Bob McDowell sparked an idea for Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith to have Community Steps reopen and run a lobby café there.

“Community Steps is a program that is always on my mind. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities for that group of students,” Smith said, adding that the Y has been a partner with Community Steps since the program started, including having the students exercise at the Y facilities. He said that he has a “deep gratitude” for McDowell and the YMCA team who show “a real willingness to support a great program.”

The Community Steps program currently has five full-time and four part-time students and meets a range of needs — from helping students with vocational and daily living skills to supporting them at Norwalk Community College. Part of Community Steps’ mission is connecting students with job sites throughout Fairfield County, including Bob’s Stores, Rising Starr Horse Rescue, Ambler Farm and CVS.

The cafe, however, will be Community Steps’ first time running its own workplace when the group opens “Cafe Steps” at the Y, starting with a soft launch on Tuesday, March 7.

Denise Arnauckas, director of Community Steps and the transition coordinator for Wilton, has been helping students organize for opening day for several weeks.

“We’re really starting from the ground up,” Arnauckas said. “So our students are doing this 100%. They’re completely involved.”

That started with selecting a name for the cafe. The students voted on ideas, ultimately selecting “Cafe Steps,” a pun on their program name and a call to fitness step-tracking. They’re working on a logo to complete the concept.

From comparing prices at BJs and Walmart for supplies, ordering inventory, finding a cash register and signs, creating budgeting tools and running the cafe itself, the students have been busily undertaking all of the responsibility.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our students to work on so many different skills. Something like this, actually owning it and creating it from the ground up, is so meaningful. It’s just a completely different experience.” Arnauckas said, adding, “The process has been really amazing for our students, and the involvement and the energy — it’s just so great.”

After making multiple visits to the Y, the students determined that the morning was the busiest time of day. So for the rest of the school year, their goal is open the cafe from 8:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m.

Inventory will include water, Gatorade, coffee and tea, healthy snacks and protein bars.

Arnauckas said the students lead everything themselves, while staff members take a backseat role. Students fill in a living document with a timeline Arnauckas drafted.

“It’s great because it’s teaching our students flexibility,” she said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of skills being taught and learned throughout this process.”

In addition to the work of getting the cafe ready for opening, owning the cafe gives students value beyond what a vocational site can provide.

“Since we’re the owners and operators of it, it incorporates so much more,” Arnauckas said. “We’re front and center. The students have the chance to show face here and be the owners and be proud.”

Peter Iorfino, a 21-year-old Community Steps student in the program, is currently taking classes at NCC. He said he thought opening the cafe was a good idea.

“I’m very excited about it,” Iorfino said, adding that it’s a shame he’s aging out of the program so soon after the cafe opens. He said he would like to create an Instagram account for the cafe to promote it.

Iorfino said he would encourage other students to join Community Steps after high school. “You’ll get a lot out of it.”

Iorfino was hired by Stew Leonard’s officially in May of last year. “Community steps helped me get that job,” he said.

Connor Cooper, a 19-year-old in community steps, said he thinks Cafe Steps is a cool opportunity, and that his existing job experience will benefit his work at the cafe.

“I’m hoping it does well,” Cooper said. “Since I’ve worked at CVS and been the guy that stocks stuff and makes sure everything’s in order, I should be able to run that part of the Cafe fairly well.”

Cooper, who also takes classes at NCC, acknowledged how big an undertaking Cafe Steps is and encourages people to stop by and buy a snack.

Cafe Steps will open for the first time on Tuesday, March 7, at 8:30 a.m., with Wilton Police Chief Thomas Conlan, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, Superintendent Smith, Assistant Superintendent Andrea Leonardi and the Community Steps community invited for the ribbon cutting.

Arnauckas said the cafe has the potential to help students significantly year after year because it expands opportunities so much.

“We’re just really grateful for this opportunity for our students,” she added.