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Java Joy Serves Up Joe With a Side of Hugs

The coffee cart Java Joy has all the usual extras people expect from a coffee shop, like sugar, cream and muffins. It also offers something most others don’t: hugs.

Smiling faces are all you can see when you stop by Java Joy, a mobile coffee cart run by adults with special needs through the Watkinsville nonprofit Extra Special People.

“We spread the joy, we laugh, we hug,” said Suzanne Gusen, 29, a Java Joy “joyrista”—the organization’s name for a barista.

Java Joy gives the community an opportunity to interact with people with disabilities, said manager Laura Graben. “More than the joy it brings [the joyristas]… the joy on the customers’ faces is even more rewarding,” she said. “They usually don’t show up to an event knowing they are going to have this interaction or experience, and so then it changes their perspective.”

Usually, an organization will rent the cart, and the coffee and muffins—provided by Jittery Joe’s—are free.

During finals week at the University of Georgia, Java Joy was at the Ramsey Student Center and Aderhold Hall. Joyristas gave a hug and a few words of encouragement, like “good luck with finals,” with every free cup of coffee served.

“Today, I have three finals back to back. There was a rumor down the hallway that Java Joy was downstairs. I could not have been more excited! They were so incredible. They greeted me, gave me a hug and helped me get my coffee. Now, I think I can go out and conquer finals,” said UGA student Lane Carrandi.  

Java Joy brings smiles not only to customers’ faces, but also the joyristas, who are gaining independence, as well as communication and job skills.

Java Joy started two years ago this month. Co-founders Jake Sapp and Laura Whitaker envisioned providing more opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. “Our mission is to provide adults with disabilities the opportunity to get workplace training, a job, and hopefully to go on and live their lives more independently and successfully,” Graben said.

In 2017, only 18.7 percent of adults with disabilities were employed, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Oftentimes, this is the joyristas’ first job. “I love Java Joy because I can make my own money,” said Hannah Rose Baird, 28.

Joan Baird, Hannah Rose’s mom, said she has seen her daughter become more independent since working at Java Joy. “She’s able to get out in the community and meet so many people. That’s been great for her language development and communication skills,” Joan Baird said. “Also, she’s become more responsible because of what they require her to do at Java Joy. They don’t just have other people do the job. The joyristas have to do all the preparations, take the carts back, clean up and restock. She’s learned real life skills… and money skills. She loves to get her tip money and save up to buy something special.”

Java Joy started out serving only in the Athens area and had four sponsors—Bulldog Kia, The Sign Brothers, Towable Tailgates and Cheeky Peach. Now, it’s traveling as far as Atlanta. Currently, it employs 11 joyristas, and the goal is to have at least 15 joyristas before the year ends, Graben said.  

“Through that, we need more bookings. So, in the next couple months, we want to get enough bookings so we can hire at least 20 joyristas,” Graben said.

Java Joy also started a new partnership with Jittery Joe’s called “Java Joy Day at the Roaster.” It allows joyristas to work the counter in Jittery Joe’s Barber Street tasting room and help employees grind and roast the coffee. Joyristas are also learning how to make cappuccinos, lattes and espressos.

For more information about Java Joy, visit For more information about Extra Special People, visit