In Portsmouth, a place for everyone

People with special needs take part in Zumba before serving it up at CFP Cafe ·

PORTSMOUTH — Members of the Common Fence Point Improvement Association (CFPIA) envision their community hall to be a welcoming place for all, and they’re putting that philsophy to practice with their new CFP Cafe that officially opened last week.

Alternatively known as the “Zumbarista Cafe” because it opens to the public immediately following the hall’s 9:15 a.m. Friday Zumba class, the little makeshift restaurant is staffed by teenagers and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They take part in one of the CFPIA’s popular Zumba classes before setting up chairs and tables and serving guests light refreshments and beverages that have been donated by the community.

Watch a video of the CFP Cafe in action here.

For Zumba instructor Amy Hart, who brainstormed the idea along with CFPIA Director of Development Conley Zani, the new venture combines her two biggest passions.

“When two great worlds come together, it’s sort of happenstance. I grew up dancing and taught tap, ballet and jazz, and I’m also a pediatric speech language pathologist for early intervention and have a private practice on the side, so I’m seeing all different populations,” said Ms. Hart, who also works for Looking Upwards, a nonprofit agency that offers services to adults with developmental disabilities.

The cafe grew out of another program where students in the special education department at Middletown High School were coming in to help clean up the community hall. 

Ms. Zani was trying to come up with different ways to engage people with special needs, other than “just mopping a floor,” she said. 

“One thing led to another and we were talking about what kind of language skills they were working on, social communication,” said Ms. Hart. “Some of them have some part-time positions in retail outlets, but this is where they’re practicing the one-on-one interaction. They each take turns and they’re working on a script back there — ‘How can I help you?’”

In addition to the Middletown students, clients of the Pawtucket-based Resources for Human Development, which offers a day program serving individuals with developmental disabilities, also come here every week.

“We’re all about getting them integrated into the community. This is like volunteering. It’s great for socializing,” said Mark Robidoux, a member of the support staff for Resources for Human Development.

Among them are Caleb Dyl and Tess Deleo from Portsmouth, and Mark Bassaly and Mike Scales of Tiverton. Clients who are more non-verbal help set up and break down for the cafe, while others meet and greet the public, he said.

“Tess is very high-functioning when it comes to speech, so she’s doing the social part of it,” said Mr. Robidoux.

Seth remains strong

Many of those with special needs also take part in the morning Zumba before serving the public. On Friday, Ms. Hart was bumping and grinding on stage, while Portsmouth’s Seth Dame followed her every move.

Seth, who has Down syndrome, is well-known to the local community. Last year the Special Olympian withstood a serious health scare that required a lengthy hospitalization, and the community rallied behind him with “#SethStrong” signs and bracelets.

“He’s on the stage every time,” said Ms. Hart. “From a Zumba perspective, I think we’re really going to try to double down on working with kids with special needs and giving them opportunities with teaching. Seth could do it. As you witnessed, they’re on that stage and loving it, and that’s inspiring.”

Added Ms. Zani, “It’s important to them to be with everybody; that was the genesis of it. They were coming to Zumba, now they’re working with us on the cafe. It’s magic.”

She noted said the cafe is open to anyone — not just those who take part in Zumba — starting at 10:15 a.m. on Fridays. 

“It’s open for an hour, an hour and a half — until people start trickling out,” Ms. Zani said. “We have a little donation jar, and those donations go back into buying the bagels for next week and the coffee and everything and anything in excess of that goes into this hall.”

She’s trying to get the word out for more senior citizens to come see what the hall is all about. “I think that demographic is very important — to give them more opportunities to get out. What’s nice about this is we have all generations here,” she said.

Big plans

The CFP Cafe is just a small part of the CFPIA’s plan to transform the neighborhood hall into a center for the arts for the wider community. 

Earlier this year the association  received a $187,000 matching grant from the R.I. State Council for the Arts to help make that possible. 

“We’re re-branding and trying to be more welcome to everybody and change people’s perception of what this community center is. So, doors are open to everybody,” said Ms. Zani.

The building already offers fitness classes, an art gallery with receptions and classes, a music series and an after-school child care program and upcomirng summer camp in partnership with the Newport County YMCA.

“So right now, there are 15 classes being offered here at  Common Fence Point, and if you’re a YMCA member it’s included in your membership. That’s for all of Newport County,” said Mike Miller, CEO of the Newport County Y.

Mr. Miller, who visited the cafe last week, said he was impressed by how quickly program offerings have expanded at the hall. “It’s shown a real sense of community. They’re bringing the community together and the culture that Conley and her staff has created is just wonderful,” he said.

For Ms. Hart, the sense of community one gets upon entering the hall is palpable. That makes it the perfect place for people with special needs to practice their socialization skills, she said.

“It’s just joy, love, support and encouragement, so this is the perfect opportunity for kids and young adults who have to take that first step out into the real world or the workforce. You could practice anything within these four walls,” she said.

The CFP Cafe opens at 10:15 a.m. every Friday at the CFPIA Community Hall, 933 Anthony Road. All are welcome. For more information, visit


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