DEEP RIVER – “I love working in restaurants and interacting with people and all that,” says 20-year-old Liam Breckenfeld, of working behind the counter at The Nest.

But the pandemic took a huge toll on the coffee shop in downtown Deep River that employs and trains people of all abilities.

“I teared up, as I did often, looking at all the empty seats because the whole point of the shop was to get people together,” says founder Jane Moen. “We were going to be out of money and out of business by March but we’re here!”

She pivoted…at first keeping staff connected and engaged by making, selling and donating a necessary item.

“We had five of our adults cutting, sewing and doing these masks. We made them sensory-friendly,” she explains.

“One of our biggest pivots was changing this area which was seating into a boutique,” she says, noting that the store features some merchandise made by artists and craftspeople on the spectrum. “We have soaps made by our own Sam, Murray’s wood puzzles, Emma makes candles….it’s been a huge source of pride and income, it saved us, it really did.”

Loyal customers have been supportive.

“They walk in knowing the mission. They walk in knowing that it’s about helping the people behind the counter, it’s not just about their order today,” says Marina Capezzone who oversees the baristas. Of course, the employees teach the customers, too.

And, an upcoming fundraiser is all about community. The beautiful Water Lantern Celebration will stream online from Plattwood Park on Sept. 25.

“It’s a chance for the whole community to come together recognize that we’re all different, recognize that everybody brings something different to the table and celebrate them with a lantern,” says Moen.

Breckenfeld, who hopes to work in a bigger restaurant someday, is so glad the shop is surviving, so more young adults can eventually leave the nest with skills and knowledge.

“I love interacting with people,” says Breckenfeld.

“We need to stay here for them and continue to be there for them, wherever this leads,” says Moen.

News 8’s Sarah Cody will be the emcee of the Water Lantern Celebration.

Click here for more information.