Wednesday, May 3, 2023
Offering treats made from the finest Callebaut Belgian chocolate, plus delicious baked goods from scratch each day, Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates in Fairfax City has earned its loyal following. But more than that, for nearly a decade, this shop in Fairfax Circle has provided meaningful jobs for young adults with intellectual disabilities.
And that’s why owners Ellen and Jim Graham began the nonprofit, Every 1 Can Work – operating as Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolates – which also employs their daughter, Cameron, after whom the shop is named. Along the way, it also caught the eye of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and First Lady Suzanne Youngkin, who came there April 6 to present it with a Spirit of Virginia award.
This honor recognizes Virginians’ standout achievements and uncommon contributions in a variety of categories. And within a warm and supportive group environment, Cameron’s teaches its employees both work and life skills to help further their independence.
Noting that the award’s inspiration came from his wife, Gov. Youngkin said, “The Spirit of Virginia recognizes that, when we go to work for others – and for the greater good – that makes Virginia better. And there’s no better place to do that than a chocolate shop.”
Thrilled with the honor, Ellen Graham said, “We’re delighted they’ve chosen us to help share our message. And so many of you here today are longtime supporters of us – board members, customers who’ve come in our doors for nine years, parents and many people who’ve supported us on so many levels – and I’m grateful to every one of you.”
She also expressed gratitude to Fairfax County’s schools that “helped provide our workers with the fundamentals that gave them the skills they possess today. For my daughter, in particular, her time spent at the Davis Training Center was invaluable. They ran a culinary program there, and that’s where we determined that she loved baking and engaging with people.”
But when Cameron was about to graduate, no one would employ her. “People with intellectual disabilities face real challenges getting hired,” said Graham. “And often, if they are given a job, it’s the same job – all day, every day – whether that’s sweeping floors or feeding paper into a shredder. And for our daughter, Jim and I wanted more.”
So she considered opening a bakery to make and sell cookies. She and Jim both had business backgrounds and looked all over Virginia to see what kinds of shops other people were running. A friend then directed them to a chocolate shop on Martha’s Vineyard.
“We visited the two women who started Chilmark Chocolates and operated it for 33 years, hiring people with intellectual disabilities,” said Graham. “And when they retired, no one stepped up to take their place, so those jobs went away. So we decided to start our shop with chocolate and came here to Fairfax.”
Chilmark’s owners shared their recipes, taught the Grahams how to make chocolates and told them which brand they used. But they discovered people here preferred expensive Belgian chocolate. They were also advised to “never accept that people won’t want your product to be better than everyone else’s because of who made it – regardless of whether they support your mission.”
“That told us we couldn’t be just as good as everybody else – we had to be better,” said Graham. “So our chocolate is the finest Belgian chocolate you can find, and our chocolates have to be perfect, or we don’t sell them. And our baked goods are baked fresh every day.”
The Grahams also decided that, whatever was left over each day, they’d share with the local homeless center, The Lamb Center, which they’ve done from the start. “For our workers, it meant they saw other people enjoying their products and thrilled to receive them,” said Ellen Graham. “It’s part of what we do; we always want to engage with the community.
“We also want to be outside as much as we can, engaging with others, so once a week, each one of our teams goes to a grocery store. To wash our cleaning rags, we walk to the local laundromat. So our workers learn life skills, at the same time; they can learn so many things, simply by doing their jobs.”
Cameron’s currently employs 23 people with intellectual disabilities. And while working there, said Graham, “They grow in different ways, based on where they are as a person. And we need so many more jobs like this to grow and expand our knowledge base.”
That way, she continued, “People who are part of our community can be productive members of society – because they want to be, and they need to be fully engaged. So we’re thrilled that the governor and first lady have given us this opportunity for exposure, and for the community to be made aware of the need for more opportunities like Cameron’s.”
Speaking next was Chloe, an employee who’s been there for six years. “I love doing my work and feeling what I do is best for me,” she said. “I get along with my co-workers, I’m proud of my job and I’m enjoying my life. I like talking with different people and being friendly to little kids. People see me smiling and happy.”
Cameron, herself, welcomed everyone to the shop. “I work with my friends, too, and make nonpareils and muffins,” she said. “Thank you for the Spirit of Virginia Award.”
Calling it a “joyous occasion,” Suzanne Youngkin said, “We’re thrilled to be here celebrating the intersection of chocolate and love.” She also noted how delighted she and her husband were that the shop’s employees taught them how to dip pretzels into chocolate before the ceremony.
She said Virginians across the commonwealth possess “ingenuity, resilience, care and compassion,” so she and her husband want to “shine a light on organizations and individuals making positive change” in the lives of others. “We’re here today doing just that – celebrating a vision that a mother had for her child, family, community and state,” said Youngkin. “We’re so proud of Ellen and so grateful.”
Next, Gov. Youngkin said everyone he met at Cameron’s is “proud of what they do and very good at it. There’s dignity in work … and every single person wants to feel purposeful. I watched the store manager and coaches support each other – and 23 Virginians realizing that what they do every day makes a difference, provides joy and brings a smile to someone’s face.”
He also mentioned he’d recently signed bills “knocking down barriers” so parents of children with disabilities can more easily access financial support for them. Stressing the importance of creating pathways so all Virginians have the opportunity “to fully realize their God-given talents,” Youngkin said, “What I saw here today is this wonderful mixture of empathy, superb skills, aspiration and a real sense of fulfillment. So thank you, Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates, for leading and lifting up all Virginians and reminding [us] that everyone can work.”
Afterward, Fairfax Economic Development Director Chris Bruno said he was thrilled Cameron’s received such a special honor. And City Mayor Catherine Read accurately called it “one of the most beloved businesses in our community.”
Cameron’s offers coffee, tea, baked goods, hand-dipped chocolate treats, homemade quiche, jams, granola and even dog treats. Catering, including made-to-order cakes, is available via www.Every1CanWork.com.