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The Hugs Training Academy

New Training Academy Puts More Hugs in the Community

Since opening its doors in October 2015, Hugs Cafe has been employing adults with special needs and developmental disabilities. The non-profit has recently launched the Hugs Training Academy, an initiative aimed at helping adults with special needs join the workforce.

“The Hugs Training Academy is a concept that we created because no one that we were directly employing was leaving either our café or greenhouse programs, and as we all know the restaurant industry is struggling with retaining talent during and post-pandemic,” says Lauren Smith, director of development for Hugs Café Inc. “The Texas Restaurant Association was aware of our skills and talent in special needs directly and they asked us if it was possible to package what we do into a program that could support other employment locations.”

Hugs Café staff started working with several special education teachers with over 125 years of combined education experience to build a 12-week culinary curriculum. The curriculum is focused on providing entry-level skills to students, so they are ready to enter the workforce in the culinary or hospitality fields. Some of these skills include food prep, knife handling, baking, customer service, communication, personal responsibility, and other industry and work-specific
skills. Upon completion of the program, individuals will receive their food handler certification and be paired with a Hugs Cafe employment partner, such as Jason’s Deli, Marriott, Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, and Snooze Eatery.

Betsy Leal is the lead teacher for the training academy. She has over 15 years of adaptive learning experience working in public and private school special education programs. She is supported by two teacher assistants, allowing for a 4:1 teacher ratio. Volunteers also assist in the classroom allowing for more one-on-one instruction during challenging lessons. Classes have a maximum capacity of 12 students.

The training academy is open to anyone at least 18 years old, interested in the culinary or hospitality fields, has a desire to be employed, and has an intellectual or developmental disability. The cost to attend the Hugs Training Academy is $2,750 per semester. Tuition fees can be covered in multiple ways, including self-pay, scholarships, business-sponsored, and soon through the Texas Workforce Commission.

Future plans include a permanent training academy facility in downtown McKinney, just east of the Hugs Café complex. Classes are currently held at Trinity Presbyterian Church in McKinney until funds are raised to build the new facility.

“It is such a blessing for us to have an opportunity to bring people things that they're interested in and really break down barriers and change lives in a new way,” says Smith. “This is a game changer for us. This is just the beginning of how we can impact lives and continue to provide quality, supportive services to the special needs community.”

To donate funds to support the training academy, volunteer in the classroom, or for more information on Hugs Training Academy visit

  • Lead Teacher Betsy Leal, Director Of Development Lauren Smith, Board Member Chris Thompson, and Founder and President Ruth Thompson