November 17, 2023

A ‘good to the last drop’ feeling overflows inside a coffee shop called God’s Embrace

Heather Simon, left, and her mother, Colleen Simon, share smiles as they pose for a photo behind the counter of God’s Embrace Coffee Shop, a business that strives to help people with disabilities find their purpose. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Heather Simon, left, and her mother, Colleen Simon, share smiles as they pose for a photo behind the counter of God’s Embrace Coffee Shop, a business that strives to help people with disabilities find their purpose. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Sitting across from each other over a cup of coffee, people often share joy, heartbreak and the depths of their soul.

On this day, emotions pour from Colleen Simon as she talks about a reality that connects all of us, a reality that she is especially hoping to create for a group of people who are close to her heart.

“Each person in this world, God has a purpose for them,” Simon says. “We can all help each other find that purpose and help them use their gifts.”

A short while later, tears start to flow from the member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis as she talks about her efforts to help people with disabilities find their purpose.

“I want people to realize the blessings that people with disabilities bring to the world—not just within their families but also within the greater community. From them, I’ve learned to accept people for who they are. And they have an honesty and an integrity that we all need. We need to give them the opportunity to live their purpose.”

That’s just what 73-year-old Simon and others are trying to do in an unlikely setting—a coffee shop on the east side of Indianapolis that is called God’s Embrace.

“We wanted to make it God-centered because we are trying to do God’s work,” Simon says.

“To me, God embraces everyone. We want to embrace all the people who come to see us whether they’re patrons or whether they’re people who are part of our program. The coffee shop is giving the people in our program a purpose. You see them come alive with joy from being able to do things they never thought they could.”

Serving a cup of joy

Simon’s words come to life on an autumn afternoon at God’s Embrace, a place that constantly strives to live one of its goals: “We hope you will join us not just for your favorite beverage, but a cup of joy.”

Since the coffee shop opened in September, Simon’s cup has overflowed with moments of joy from seeing people with special needs embrace the opportunity to learn new skills, to grow in independence, to work at a place where they feel they belong.

Joy radiates from the face of Simon’s daughter, Heather, one of the workers at the coffee shop. At 50, Heather has an intellectual disability that puts her at a first- or second-grade learning level, according to her mom, “but she is extremely social and loves to talk to everyone.”

That quality comes through in a conversation with her.

“I like to work here,” Heather says, flashing a smile that makes it seem she is being embraced by God. “I like the customers. And I like to make drinks, lots of drinks!”

At 27, Savina Lind also glows when she talks about working at the coffee shop.

“It’s nice to make friends and see the same customers,” she says. “It’s nice to get familiar with them. The people are caring, and I get to do things I’ve never done before. I’ve never made coffee like this, the fancy stuff.”

Dylan Woods calls God’s Embrace “a good place.” He talks with the same pride about doing some of the hard work at the coffee shop—“cleaning and sweeping the floors”—as he does about participating in basketball and bowling in Special Olympics.

On this afternoon, all three of them, plus their quiet, hard-working friend, Vince Dunn, are being supervised and trained by the coffee shop’s energetic manager, Franny Tremmel.

“I enjoy bringing people together,” Tremmel says. “I just try to meet them where they’re at and accept them for who they are. I have that approach with all people. I feel if Jesus can do that, we can do the same for the people around us.”

Simon has seen the impact that Tremmel has on the workers, including Heather.

“I love the fact that Franny is so loving and caring,” says Simon, who also has a younger daughter, Angela, with her husband of 51 years, Richard. “Heather had an incident where she didn’t turn the hot water off on the machine, and it scared her. Right away, Franny went and calmed her down. Franny walked her through it, and Heather finished making the drink. It was just a beautiful thing to watch.”

There’s also a splash of beauty—and generosity—in the connection between God’s Embrace and the organization that has made it possible.

‘God has been driving me to do this’

God’s Embrace is located at the Fatima Event Center at 1040 N. Post Road, the center that is operated by the Knights of Columbus Fatima Council 3228.

“We started on a shoestring budget,” Simon says. “Some men from the Knights of Columbus at Fatima are on our board. They came up with the idea for the coffee shop. Their building has been renovated and one of the rooms looks like a coffee shop and has an outside entrance. They’re sponsoring us. We pay nothing for the use of this building or utilities. We just pay for what we need for the coffee shop, which has been such a blessing.”

The blessings didn’t stop there. In need of some capital to open God’s Embrace, Simon approached a potential donor that a friend had introduced her to, and when she showed the man their business plan, he wrote a check to fund it.

The coffee shop, which also serves food items, is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. It reverts back to an event center at the end of each day, but the commitment of the Knights to God’s Embrace is long-term.

“The Knights have always been behind special-needs individuals, so this is just another opportunity to try to help them,” says Steve Day, president of the Fatima Home Association, the corporation that operates the Fatima Event Center for the Knights. “God’s Embrace is a less secular, more Catholic-based way to help the special needs community.”

Both Day and Simon view the coffee shop as the starting point for the long-term vision of God’s Embrace—a God-centered residential and vocational campus for individuals with special needs who don’t have the ability to live independently.

That goal stems from the concern that people with special needs, such as Heather, and the family members that care for them, such as the Simons, are getting older and will eventually need housing options for the individuals with special needs.

Toward that goal of “building a community one cup at a time,” Simon says she has surrendered herself and that dream to God’s plan and his timing.

“God has been driving me to do this,” she says. “I don’t know where it will go. I have Mother Teresa’s philosophy, which is, you have to be faithful to your mission, you don’t have to be successful. That’s how I’ve been living all these years. And it energizes me. So, the people you meet along the way, whether it’s in the disabled community or the greater community, it’s just wonderful.”

‘We’re trying to live the values of our Catholic faith’

That connection to the larger community shows in one defining section of God’s Embrace—the “Prayers and Praises” area that was created by woodworker Mark Fornefeld, who is autistic. With a cross from the Holy Land, the “Prayers and Praises” area is a place where patrons can leave their prayer requests, with the promise that the team at God’s Embrace will pray for such intentions.

Simon has her own list of prayers.

She prays in thanksgiving for all the people and all the blessings that God has provided so far.

She prays in the hope that people will accept each other for who they are, that people will come to understand that we all have our limitations, we all have our gifts, and we can all learn from each other.

She prays in the belief that we all have a purpose, and she continues to ask God to guide her and the other parent volunteers to help their children with special needs live their purpose.

“I feel like we’re trying to live the values of our Catholic faith—mercy, joy, compassion, understanding,” Simon says. “We’re trying to be wise in all that God has given us to put this together.

“He has given us so much.” †

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