Kimberly Callihan Kaczmarek, MS, knew that she wanted to be a special education teacher by the time she was 12 years old. She recalls being particularly inspired upon witnessing her community gather to support her best friend’s brother, who was born with developmental disabilities. Earning a diploma from Briarcliff High School, she obtained a Bachelor of Science in education at Syracuse University before achieving a Master of Science in special education from Fordham University in 1986. When she achieved her first teaching position in special education, she was very pleased to have her friend’s brother in her class. Five years into her career, Ms. Kaczmarek joined Sleepy Hollow High School as a special education teacher, where she would stay for the next 35 years.
During her tenure at Sleepy Hollow High School, Ms. Kaczmarek ran multiple programs for students with disabilities in an effort to create an inclusive environment in which her students could thrive. These programs included the Sleepy Hollow Academy for Disability Education, also known as SHADE, a peer-mentoring program that paired general education students with students with special needs from elementary through high school, and an off-campus life skills program, which helps to prepare students to live independently and teaches them various necessary life skills, such as cooking, doing laundry and home maintenance. Ms. Kaczmarek also coached sports at Sleepy Hollow High School under the auspices of the Special Olympics.
Of particular note in Ms. Kaczmarek’s work, was her involvement in Project U, which teaches students with disabilities pre-employment skills. Through Project U, she developed a school-based coffee shop for her students in 2016, where the students were responsible for everything from food preparation to inventory and accounting to human resource activities. The student body at Sleepy Hollow High School secretly secured a grant and used the money to build a mobile cart for the shop, which was a wonderful surprise and show of support. The success of this endeavor inspired Ms. Kaczmarek to bring the coffee shop model from the school setting to the community at large as she has long been driven by the desire to address the lack of employment opportunities for disabled individuals.
Drawing her teaching career to a close after 40 years, Ms. Kaczmarek has begun the work to establish Sleepy Coffee, Too Inc., a nonprofit company that will serve as an avenue to help her former students and other disabled individuals find fulfilling work in the community. She also hopes that Sleepy Coffee, Too will help to break down barriers and stereotypes that surround people with disabilities, bringing to the fore that disabled people are deserving of respect and meaningful employment. The name of the shop is notably inspired by what one of her students called the school-based coffee shop, “Sleepy Coffee.”
Operating under the motto, “Where kindness is served, one cup at a time,” Sleepy Coffee, Too is slated to open in the late summer or early fall of 2022. In the meantime, Ms. Kaczmarek has been involving herself in various fundraising events and efforts as a way to help the company become self-sustaining. Her ultimate goal for Sleepy Coffee, Too is to help her employees move from the coffee shop into other jobs in the community that bring them satisfaction, so she can continue to bring in new trainees. She also has plans to start a mentoring program for high school students with special needs that will take the form of after school social recreation events. Ms. Kaczmarek hopes that she will be able to grow Sleepy Coffee, Too to become a destination spot for tourists and locals alike.
Having accomplished much over the course of her career, Ms. Kaczmarek considers the highlight of her career to be the four years she spent as a coach for the Special Olympics. She was selected as the head coach for the unified men’s basketball team, which went on to win the Los Angeles-based World Games in 2015. Due to the age of the players, they were perceived as the underdogs of the tournament, but they persevered and won the gold medal in their event, besting hopefuls from 177 other countries. In 2021, Ms. Kaczmarek was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with the Special Olympics.
Born in Schenectady, New York, to parents John and Wanda Callihan, Ms. Kaczmarek notes that her parents were always her biggest cheerleaders and her father, in particular, was an incredibly strong motivational force. She remembers him constantly telling her, “Don’t wait too long to do what you want to do.” She is also very proud that her son, Zachary, has followed in her footsteps and is studying to become an art teacher. Above everything, Ms. Kaczmarek hopes to leave a legacy of kindness and that her work has made the world a kinder, more accepting place.