Great Barrington — “I just sort of dreamed it up, and it’s a dream come true,” says Cherri Sanes, founder of ExtraSpecialTeas, who – nearly 18 months after opening the doors to her vibrant, eclectic, community-inspired teahouse in the Berkshires – has received a citation from Gov. Charlie Baker as one of 2017’s Unsung Heroines of Massachusetts. Sanes traveled to the Statehouse in Boston on June 21 to receive her award, after being nominated by Sen. Adam Hinds as a means of recognizing her for her previously unnoted yet invaluable community contributions.
Sanes has created a sanctuary of sorts. The light-filled space, somewhat off the proverbial beaten path on Elm Street behind Berkshire Bank and adjacent to Carr Hardware, exudes a soothing albeit positive energy. Upbeat instrumentals float from obscured speakers and match the golden, sunny walls and, if one slows down enough to feel it, the space is welcoming – as if beckoning visitors to sit and stay awhile. In short, it is a veritable model for community integration: trendy teens flock there for bubble tea, mothers with small children sense comfort in the couches, and individuals with special needs are not only welcomed but also employed in a place where they feel safe and not judged.
The grand opening of EST on April 2, 2016 – World Autism Awareness Day – was no coincidence: Sanes and her husband, Scott, are the parents to Jache, age 25, who was born with autism. Their experience parenting Jache catapulted the family on a journey that, for the moment, has culminated in a visionary nonprofit teahouse where young adults with intellectual and developmental differences who have aged out of school and are otherwise not employable can gain employment. EST offers a therapeutic vocational day program so that each participant can learn, grow and work in the way that best meets his or her needs. Of equal importance is that EST has become a safe haven for others with special needs and their families.
The Sanes family arrived at EST after more than three years spent obtaining nonprofit status, building a 12-member board, and infusing the space at 2 Elm St. to reflect their unique and inspiring mission: “We bring people + ExtraSpecialNeeds People together over tea to experience purpose, possibility and gratitude.”
The Sanes family had been looking for a way that Jache could be part of the community and their work on his behalf has had far-reaching effects. “It’s so beautiful to watch them blossom – and realize they can do it!” says Sanes of the 12 ExtraSpecialNeeds individuals currently participating in the supported employment program and community-based day program. For some participants, the programs at EST are a way to feel success and joy; for others, the experience provides a stepping stone to future employment. “It’s exciting,” says Sanes. “Word is starting to get out,” she adds, noting with little fanfare that they have just been licensed by the state of Massachusetts, which means they are receiving not only recognition but also funds to fuel their important work.
“Everything I’ve done in my life — that’s happened to me – has prepared me for this,” says Sanes, with an almost audible welling up in her voice. She grew up in Whitney, Texas, where her father owned a pharmacy with a soda fountain; she worked for 12 years as a legal secretary where she met her husband, Scott Sanes, a local attorney; and she became a mother to Molly, 21, and Jache, 25. Sanes and her husband moved to Sheffield to be near the Option Institute, widely acclaimed for the Son-Rise Program, an educational treatment modality which includes joining children instead of going against them. The program places parents as key teachers, therapists and directors of their own programs and utilizes the home as the most nurturing environment in which to help their children.
Over the course of raising Jache, Sanes trained more than 150 volunteers and ran an 8- to 10-hour day program in the home that they built one mile from the Option Institute campus. She encountered people from all walks of life, each of whom was willing to spend dedicated time with Jache in a non-distractible setting in their home. And of her journey? Sanes has nothing but gratitude for the experience: “Every time I felt that I could not make this work (and there were many obstacles), an opportunity would fall in my lap to make it happen. That’s when I knew that I was on my true life’s path. Everything in my life had happened for a reason to make my dream of opening doors of opportunity for my son, Jache, and other adults with special needs a reality. We are so grateful to the Great Barrington community for embracing us!”
The mass.gov website cuts straight to the chase: “The Unsung Heroines are women who don’t always make the news, but truly make the difference. They are the women who use their time, talent and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others and make a difference in their neighborhoods, cities and towns. They are mentors, volunteers and innovators who do what needs to be done without expectations of recognition or gratitude. These women are the glue that keeps a community together and every community has them.”
When asked, “Why tea?”, Sanes is poised and ready with an answer: “We chose tea because it’s communal,” she says, bright eyes wide with wonder as if a bit incredulous as to her own success. “The sky’s the limit for those who come here,” she adds with great enthusiasm. Congratulations, Cherri, and please pardon the attention while in the Berkshires: we sing your praises, if only for a moment, before letting you get back to your invaluable work.