Cathy Snyder serves a thirsty patron.
Photo and article by Jeremy Benson

To the hard right of Wirt Library's main entrance, tucked in an alcove the size of a two car-garage, a quiet gem of a cafe serves fresh brews and warm lunches to a steady flow of readers and workers, ducking in from the hectic streets of Downtown Bay City. From the time the library opens to an hour before its closing, the Mug@Wirt cafe welcomes the frazzled, or plain thirsty, to its sanctuary.

"Here, it’s kind of like being at home," says barista Cathy Snyder, as she points out the generous lunch combos and specialty drinks available for order: there's the "Zoop-Zandwich" combinations, including "All that and … (a bag of chips)," or a healthy serving of the daily hot entrée. "We have something for everybody," promises Cathy.

For drinkers, the cozy café offers a full line of hot and iced coffees, teas and smoothies, including the "Peppermint Patty" latté and the "Snickerdelicious," each choice more delicious than the last, and at incredibly affordable prices. After, or during, a particularly rough day, the Mug@Wirt recommends a nearly sinful reward, the "Brownie Carma Collision Smoothie," a refreshing blast of brownie and caramel topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, which they make "because you deserve it," and because "it was just meant to be."

The Mystic Monk beans used in the Mug@Wirt's espressos and coffees arrive freshly roasted from a cloistered monastery in Wyoming, with all three flavor layers intact for the discerning javaholic."We've had customers say they've stopped adding sugars and creams," beams Dave Scholl, the Director of Marketing and Development for the Valley Organization for Improved Communication and Equality for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, which operates the café.  (The meditative Mystic Monk double-handed mug is available to purchase at the café, along with bulk beans and other merchandise.)

Better known as V.O.I.C.E., Inc., the nonprofit provides a handful of services to people with disabilities (with a focus on the deaf or hard-of-hearing), including employment assistance, interpreting, legal advocacy, and in-home staffing, which allows an individual to maintain an independent lifestyle. Director Tammy Scholl, a Bay City native who was born deaf, has guided V.O.I.C.E. into an ever-successful and effective service.

According to Director of Outreach Shelby Gilbert, the cafe was created as "an environment that will foster work skills to help individuals get better jobs in the future." The baristas of the Mug@Wirt are either clients of V.O.I.C.E., or have been referred to the organization by a partnering advocacy group, such as Michigan Rehabilitation Services or Experience Works, and they will eventually use the experience from the Mug as a stepping stone toward further gainful employment.

The café is also a meeting place for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, who gather for "Sign & Dine," Wednesdays at 4 to 7 p.m., to socialize, commonly communicating with American Sign Language, which is now the third most-used language in the United States. "We're trying, as an agency, to be a resource to the community," says Gilbert.

As much as V.O.I.C.E. and the café serve the community, what goes around comes around. V.O.I.C.E., and host Wirt Library, have a lengthy list of partners and fans, who actively work with the Mug to help it succeed. Bambi Straeble, the owner/operator of Bambi's in the Saginaw YMCA, has mentored the young café in the basics of coffee house management, from drink recipes to the fine-tuning of espresso machines. The Bay Cafe, located on State Park Drive, provides the café with salads, sandwiches and hot entrées, while the Vienna Bakery on Columbus in Bay City delivers the pastries and muffins. Dan Chapman, a former high school counselor and current job developer for V.O.I.C.E., displays and sells his hand-made jewelry at the cafe.

The Mug@Wirt strives to be a place of community and relaxation for all, whether hard of hearing (from birth or rock-n-roll) or those just looking for a bowl of soup and a warm coffee.

Become a fan of the Mug@Wirt on Facebook, or follow @mugwirts for Twitter-only specials. More information on V.O.I.C.E., Inc. can be found at their website.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010