Class of 2002 alumna Katie Kishore certainly hasn’t taken a straightforward path since graduating from the University nearly two decades ago. Once an athlete and educator, Kishore has now turned her attention to opening a unique local coffee shop, Kindness Cafe + Play, with a very special purpose.
“The absolute mission of our cafe is to employ adults with cognitive disabilities and … to remind our community of the value of kindness and to slow down and take care of one another and to connect with one another,” Kishore said.
While Kishore is enthusiastic about starting Kindness, she never expected to be in this position. Her newest endeavor isn’t exactly related to her past experiences.
Her life at the University
Growing up in Richmond, Kishore played both soccer and basketball in high school before choosing to focus on the former, eventually committing to Virginia to play soccer under Coach April Heinrichs. In addition to a great women’s soccer program, the University’s academics, beautiful scenery and close proximity to home were also appealing to Kishore.
However, during her first year, the women’s basketball team approached her and encouraged her to walk on. After suffering injuries and possibly a transfer, the team was looking for more talent. Given that she was a local player and the staff had seen her play in the past, Kishore was an obvious choice, and after deciding to join, she officially became a two-sport college athlete.
If playing on two different varsity teams wasn’t impressive enough, Kishore also was a captain of both squads simultaneously. Playing two different sports all four years while maintaining a full academic course load is no easy task and Kishore relied on excellent time management to handle her busy schedule.
“I was very scheduled at college compared to the average college student, as far as I can tell,” Kishore said. “It was much more like high school in terms of I had classes at normal hours in the morning, and then went to practice in the afternoon and did homework in the evenings.”
After graduating from the Curry School of Education with a master’s degree in teaching, Kishore embarked on what can only be described as a non-linear career path. Immediately following graduation, Kishore played soccer professionally up in New York with the Women’s United Soccer Association.
“That transition was fantastic,” Kishore said. “We got to extend [the college lifestyle] a little bit. So, we had this crew of teammates, and we were living in the city and it was just it was a lot of fun with a lot of freedom and flexibility and still those really powerful relationships that I think are often unique to college.”
After her time as a professional athlete, Kishore worked in outdoor education for a while, transitioned to a classroom teacher role and eventually moved back to the Charlottesville area in 2010.
Years later, Kishore’s winding journey has guided her to a brand-new purpose — to create an inclusive space that supports the disability community in Charlottesville.
“Life is wonderful and tragic and funny, and it's led me to this point,” Kishore said.
Developing a business model
The concept of Kindness Cafe + Play was inspired by a similar coffee shop in North Carolina — Bitty & Beau’s. After a friend sent her a video of the cafe, which opened in 2016, Kishore fell in love with the idea. However, since she had no previous restaurant or business experience, Kishore didn’t immediately think about starting her own cafe.
“[The Bitty & Beau’s team] have a great space where they employ adults with cognitive disabilities,” Kishore said. “They do a great job of sharing their mission with the world … the more I thought about it, the more I realized Charlottesville could benefit from something like that. And as I explored the possibility of bringing it here, I realized that both I could do it and that I should do it.”
Kishore’s motivation to make Kindness a success has two parts — her community and her family. According to their website, Kindness hopes to be a space where “people with and without disabilities will interact as peers.”
Over the years, Kishore has learned about the challenges adults with cognitive disabilities face. Specifically, she discussed how individuals in the disability community are often well-supported until the age of 22, at which point they may plateau or even regress without substantive employment opportunities. Accordingly, Kishore recognizes the incredible impact Kindness can have on Charlottesville.
“We say that our employees’ lives will be changed, their families' lives will be changed, because they'll be provided meaningful employment,” Kishore said. “I think all of us gain so much from meaningful employment from our social connection to a sense of purpose to opportunities for growth.”
In addition to directly benefiting employees, Kishore also believes that Kindness can play a role in creating a more inclusive community in Charlottesville.
“The other piece, which is harder to quantify, [is the idea that] we can help people rethink how they view adults with disabilities,” Kishore said.
Kindness’ mission is close to Kishore’s heart. One of her daughters has a cognitive disability, and Kishore wants to show her children — and the Charlottesville community — that everyone has talents to share and can engage in meaningful work.
Kishore emphasized that our society values quickness, both physical and mental, which easily translates to economic value. However, she believes that kindness and the ability to connect with and forgive people are undervalued. With the establishment of Kindness, Kishore hopes to show that these traits — which can be strengths of individuals with cognitive disabilities like her younger daughter — can be valuable to the community as well.
Connecting with the Charlottesville and University community
Of course, opening a new coffee shop comes with its fair share of challenges. From setting up a website to filing taxes, Kishore — as the nonprofit’s founder and executive director — has had to learn quickly. Fortunately, Kishore has been able to lean on an enthusiastic support system in Charlottesville.
“There were lots of challenges, but there was even greater support,” Kishore said. “ For every challenge, there was a person or an organization that was more than able and more than willing to be helpful.”
Local businesses — like Grit Coffee and Breadworks — have partnered with Kindness to support their mission. Grit Coffee will help train the employees and provide coffee for the cafe while BreadWorks will provide baked goods.
The University has also worked with Kindness in various ways. A social entrepreneurship class in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is working on a group project about Kindness’ online store. Kindness also provided coffee for one of University President Jim Ryan’s early morning community runs. Kishore also has a strong relationship with Virginia Athletics, as many members of the Virginia sports community — including Athletics Director Carla Williams and men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett — have shown their support for the cafe.
Beyond the support of outside organizations, Kishore has also depended on Reagan Stillerman, Kindness’ director of operations who will manage aspects of the cafe such as inventory, employment and training. With 19 years of experience as a special education teacher, most recently at Monticello High School, Stillerman brings critical expertise to the project.
“After nearly 20 years of classroom experience working with persons with disabilities, I feel like my entire career has led up to this opportunity,” Stillerman said. “That coupled with the great vision and leadership of [Kishore] motivated me to join Team Kindness.”
Stillerman discussed Kindness’ role as a leader in this space and the impact it can have on the larger community. The disability community — in Charlottesville and beyond — often struggles to find opportunities to continue to learn and grow in adulthood. According to Stillerman, Kindness can not only fill that void but also serve as an example to others.
“We want Kindness to continue to open doors for persons with disabilities within this community and beyond,” Stillerman said. “We want employers to walk into Kindness, see the ways in which our employees thrive and begin to think of opportunities for adults with disabilities within their own companies and businesses. We want Kindness to lead the way for Charlottesville to become a fully inclusive community.”
Along with Stillerman, Kishore is also confident in her staff — eight adults with cognitive disabilities, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-to-late 30s, who have a variety of experience in different jobs. Marcos Davis, Max Dreyfus, Amanda Grove and Anne Ross — some of the members of the cafe’s current staff — are all extremely excited to be a part of the Kindness team.
"I am excited to be a part of the community and show others that people with disabilities can still get jobs and be an active part of the community,” Davis said.
The Kindness staff is eager to make the cafe an enjoyable space. Dreyfus emphasized that he wants to “make the cafe look good” and “make people feel happy.” Ross echoed his sentiments, saying that she hopes to give Kindness’ customers “a fun and positive experience.” Grove further highlighted the social and educational opportunities Kindness can provide.
"I like to be a part of Team Kindness because I get to spend time with my friends and learn new things,” Grove said.
The heartfelt purpose that drove Kishore to first start Kindness has clearly permeated throughout Team Kindness and the surrounding community. Today, nearly twenty years after her NCAA career ended, Kishore is a captain once again — just with a different team and a new goal.
While Kindness Cafe + Play was supposed to open March 28 at the Brooks Family YMCA in Charlottesville, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has put those plans on hold for the time being. Kishore says that they plan to open approximately two weeks after the YMCA reopens.