At Unless U Scoops, service is extra sweet.

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Unless U Scoops
Credit: Courtesy of Unless U

If the coral-striped awning and sherbet-hued bistro tables outside didn't indicate that you're about to enter the happiest ice cream shop in the Birmingham area, the cheery greeter holding the door for you with a lively "Welcome to Scoops!" might.

Opened August 6, Unless U Scoops is staffed by the students of Unless U, a non-profit organization that serves and empowers adults with developmental disabilities.

"We wanted to create a fun, exciting work environment for our students," says Unless U founder and executive director Lindy Cleveland of the shop, which peddles artisan flavors from local creamery Big Spoon. "[It's a place] where the community, when they walk through the door, knows that they're interacting with the students of Unless U, and therefore hopefully have more grace and patience and understanding."

For Cleveland, this mission is deeply personal. Her brother Jordan has Down syndrome, and after graduating from high school, his family reached a crossroads in determining his next steps.

"When he graduated, he lost all of his structure, all of his community," says Cleveland of her brother, who is now 35. "He had all of these educators and therapists advocating for him his entire life, but the day he turned 21, his options became shooting basketball or bagging groceries. And neither of those were a good fit for him."

Eager to provide her brother and others like him with another avenue, she started Unless U with 6 students in her parents' home, then grew to 10 in a classroom at her church. That was in 2014. Today, Unless U serves nearly 100 students, providing continuing education and a place to hone social and life skills.

Opened this summer, their new state-of-the-art facility makes it possible for students to receive on-site vocational training too. To Cleveland, ice cream as the vehicle for teaching job skills just made sense.

"There's this joy that comes with ice cream that encapsulates who we are and what we do and the personality of our students," she says.

Now that the ice cream shop is up and running, Meredith Binkley, Unless U's job training specialist and manager of Scoops, has had a front row seat to the students' first days of work. For her, witnessing their pride is the cherry on top.

"One of our students had been scooping ice cream and serving customers," says Binkley. "She came in crying, and we were like, 'Oh my gosh, what's wrong?' But it was happy tears. She told us she'd proved her doctors wrong. Her doctors had told her she'd never have a job, and she was just so proud of herself… To see that confidence is incredible."

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