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Milton High School Coffee Club helps students, staff bond during morning chats

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
December 29, 2011
— Milton High School's newest club is such a big hit that it's blown fuses in the building.

But hey, when you've got more than 60 students, teachers and staff plugging in for a hot cup of Joe, it can cause a power surge in more ways than one.


Staff and students are still ironing out details such as electrical distribution and what blend of ingredients makes the perfect mocha, but one thing's certain: Everyone seems to dig Coffee Club.


The new school club meets every Friday in the special education room at Milton High School from 7:15 a.m. until the first bell.


It's as straightforward as sounds: coffee, cocoa, tea and a morning chat with friends—dozens and dozens of them.


Special education teacher Brianna Smith said the club has proven to be a mixer for students of all backgrounds and social strata. Even teachers and staff say they've met new students and broken down barriers through the club.


The idea came up earlier this school year after one of Smith's students, freshman Alex Hokinson, 15, had tried joining a few school clubs. Hokinson was frustrated because none seemed like a good fit.


Hokinson has developmental delays linked to a chronic illness in her early childhood, including the anxiety disorder selective mutism. The disorder affects her ability to speak during certain situations, carry a conversation or interact socially with others.


Seeking a solution for Hokinson's club dilemma and her social challenges, Smith probed Hokinson's interests and got inside her comfort zone. Hokinson said she likes coffee. Heck, Smith does, too. And so the idea was born.


Hokinson and Smith presented school administration a pitch for Coffee Club, complete with a logo and posters. The concept is simple: Everyone at school is welcome for free coffee and friendship.


Activities Director Brian Hammil said he approved the club without thinking twice.


"It's pretty neat," Hammil said. "It's one of those things that's special because it's really nothing special—it's just people standing around talking and having coffee together."


The club began in November, but already it draws between 60 and 100 students of all backgrounds, plus school staff, who come and go from the special education room before school on Fridays.


Some grab a cup and go, but most hang around the room to hold a coffee klatsch on anything from music to gossip to plans for Saturday night hangouts.


Club members even have their own unique mugs, and one student draws a new "Coffee Club" mural on the classroom chalkboard every week.


Smith chose the special education room for club because it has a kitchen that can double as triple-barrel coffeemaker station. She said the other perk is that the room is small. When it gets crowded during Coffee Club, there's no room for cliques to form.


"It encourages rubbing elbows and bumping into people and talking to people you don't know. I think the crowding is good. It's part of the uniqueness," Smith said.


Matthew Winters, a senior at the high school, joined Coffee Club after he heard an intercom announcement about it.


"It's a nice way to ease into Friday. It's a great idea. I've talked to people I've recognized for years who I've never talked to before. It's different faces every time. Even with teachers who come here, there's less of a student-teacher boundary. It's kind of cool," Winters said.


Hokinson was voted as president of Coffee Club. Her mother, Allison Hokinson, said the club has been a huge boost for her daughter.


"Alex needs measures to push her into situations that help her with her social fear. This has made a world of difference," Allison Hokinson said. "Since she was named club president, I don't think there's any other time in her life when she has felt so much connection to anything."


During a recent Coffee Club morning, Hokinson chatted up two upperclassman girls about the shirts they had on for a school "ugly sweater" contest. Her demeanor was breezy and whimsical—not uptight.


It was Friday morning, and she and two new friends already had dinner plans set for Saturday night at Applebee's.


Hokinson said her duties as club president aren't taxing.


"I just show up and drink coffee," she said, sipping mocha with marshmallows. "It's really not hard."


The club's coffee is free; district parents donate it along with cocoa, tea, creamer and specialty syrups. Students help to make the coffee and clean up before school starts.


Robert Witt, a student who has Down syndrome, was voted last year's Milton High School prom king. This year, you could call him the Duke of Java.


Witt's an officer in Coffee Club and a bona fide coffee lover. His teachers say he's developed two new interests through the club: chitchat and conversation.


Witt took a gulp of black coffee from a huge ceramic Christmas mug.


"This is my first club, ever," he said. "It's the best club ever."



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