#Changemakers in the Disabilities Community: Ruth Thompson

Hugs Café founder, Ruth Thompson // photo Hunter Lacey
Hugs Café founder, Ruth Thompson // photo Hunter Lacey

Prior to 2004, Ruth Thompson lived and worked in Colorado as the executive director for a company that provided respite care for families who had loved ones with special needs. In the process of booking people to work with these families, she fell in love with the population that has intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD. When Ruth and her husband, Chris, moved to Texas in 2004, she knew she had to continue working with individuals with special needs.

“I’ve worn many hats in my professional lifetime. I’ve always done things I enjoyed, but I never was passionate about my work until I started working with the special needs population,” shared Ruth.

When the Thompsons arrived in Texas, there weren’t many organizations supporting the IDD community. Unable to find a company similar to the one she worked for in Colorado, Ruth applied for and was offered a job at Market Street in McKinney.

“I love to cook and I had management experience, so it seemed like a good fit. Along with booking local guest chefs to teach classes, I started cooking classes for adults with special needs,” Ruth said. “We started out with six in our class who would come regularly. When I left Market Street in 2013, we had over 130 students with special needs who would come to our class.”

Ruth spent a lot of her time at Market Street getting to know these students. She recalled that a lot of their conversations revolved around how much each of her students desired meaningful employment. “They would talk about their friends getting a job, and they’d be so excited for them, but they’d also talk about how much they wanted a job for themselves,” she remembered.

Ruth (at far right) with Hugs Café team members Tamika, Kalyn, Blaine, Becky, Sam, Ricky, Abs and Marcus // photo Hunter Lacey
Ruth (at far right) with Hugs Café team members Tamika, Kalyn, Blaine, Becky, Sam, Ricky, Abs and Marcus // photo Hunter Lacey

The Thompsons both retired in 2013, but in 2012, Ruth had a recurring dream about opening a restaurant that employed primarily adults with special needs. “After telling my husband about it, he said, ‘We have to do it,” shared Ruth.

The process of opening Hugs Café began in 2012, including putting together a board of directors, filing for nonprofit status and incorporating within the state of Texas. In 2015, Hugs Café opened its doors in McKinney.

Hugs Café lives out its mission daily to enhance the lives of adults with special needs through training and employment. They do this by preparing and serving delicious sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods.

courtesy Hugs Café
courtesy Hugs Café

As of 2020, Hugs also owns an offsite greenhouse where they sell flowers grown by adults with special needs, and an ecommerce site selling jams and chutneys as well as jewelry, all made by adults with special needs. The nonprofit organization has also started offering cooking classes for these adults. The lineup includes basic cooking classes, how to maneuver in your home kitchen, how to maneuver in a commercial kitchen and how to plan meals.

“When I think of Ruth Thompson, I think of her drive and vision,” says Michael Thomas, executive director of My Possibilities, a continuing education and job training campus in Plano for adults with IDD. “She is incredibly passionate about her work with Hugs Café. She’s innovative and resourceful in her approach to employ and train the disabilities community.”

Among those employed at Hugs Café, there are several that are also HIPsters, the Hugely Important People enrolled at My Possibilities.

courtesy Hugs Café
courtesy Hugs Café

“The unemployment rate for adults with special needs who are capable of working is 82.3%,” Ruth shared. “But when you hire someone with special needs, and train them properly, and treat them with kindness and respect, you have an employee for life.”

Hugs Café is living proof that a business run by adults with IDD can succeed. In all the years since Hugs opened, they’ve only had two teammates leave – one because she moved, and the other because he wanted to help his dad work on cars.

Though employment of adults with special needs is going up across the world, Hugs is one of the organizations paving the way for a new model that will hopefully continue to add willing and capable workers to the global workforce.

Hugs Café > My Possibilities >


The above content is sponsored. We have partnered with My Possibilities to spotlight #Changemakers in the disabilities community.

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