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While it pays homage to the city’s textile history, the newest restaurant on Roanoke Avenue pays even greater homage to special needs adults who work there.

The Mill Coffee & Eatery held a ribbon-cutting this morning at its location at 1020 Roanoke Avenue with help from the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce.

For owner Melissa Harris, a retired teacher within the Roanoke Rapids Graded School it was a dream to see the adults have a place to work after completing their high school education.

“It’s paying honor to the mill that is actually what made Roanoke Rapids,” Harris before the ribbon-cutting. 

But, she said, “The unique aspect right now is our employees are all intellectually challenged or physically challenged adults. The reason we have done this is I retired from teaching. I was a special education teacher for the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District for 35 years.”

Harris said she has seen many of the students after graduation go home and “just didn’t have an opportunity to do anything to continue to be a productive citizen. It was just a dream to give them this opportunity to be able to come in and work and build up their self-esteem.”

Said Harris: “That’s just the whole purpose — to give back to the community, to give them an opportunity to continue to excel once they graduated.”

She said the employees are extremely excited about having the opportunity to work. “My fondest memory right now is the day they got their first paycheck. They were very ecstatic. I got tickled because one of them said, ‘I’m actually a paid person now.’ They all have gone and opened up checking accounts or savings accounts.”

Tammy Blount, one of the employees at The Mill, said, “I’m very grateful. I love working with special needs adults. I, myself, am disabled and just being around her and here and giving back. I love working with people.”

Le’Naz Simmons said he was grateful for the opportunity to work at The Mill. “I’m a very versatile worker,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with certain jobs.”

Simmons said he received a call from one of his counselors telling him about a job at the eatery. “I went there, filled in my application and she hired me on the spot.”

For Simmons the opportunity to earn a paycheck simply gives him a chance “to be happy and be grateful for it.”

Amy Edmonds said she is excited about the opportunity to work. “I just feel grateful.”

Inside the restaurant are vintage postcards provided by Cindy Boone and Rex Stainback. 

They have been enlarged and framed by Harris’s sister-in-law and show scenes from all the mills in the heyday of the textile mills in the city. “This a family affair,” Harris said. “We have done all the work ourselves. No construction workers came in except electricians. If it wasn’t for my family I don’t where I’d be right now. I’m grateful for vocational rehab because they have given me my employees.”

Currently the eatery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with plans to eventually open on Saturdays.

Beyond the photos of the mills both inside and outside the facilities, are four combos named after the Rosemary mill, J.P. Stevens, the Roanoke mill and Patterson mill.

One of the window displays contains original machinery from the mills and local artist Riley Mills painted a mural for the inside and outside of the eatery.

Harris said her parents worked in the textile mills.

With the new O’Aetos recently opening and plans for a brewery in the works at the former bus terminal on the avenue, Harris said she is honored to be a part of the new development coming to the city, “Not only for myself but the community behind it.”

Main Street Development Director Christina Caudle said, “We are starting to see life being brought back to the avenue. There’s a lot of interest from investors. This is incremental and takes time. Last year we started seeing a lot of pick-up and really quality investors and we just hope that will continue.”

Caudle there have been business owners who have persevered through the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Mill is one of them. “It’s been an uphill battle through the shutdown and they have persevered.”

Caudle said The Mill “is a really meaningful business. Obviously having another restaurant to visit in the historic district is important not only for this business but other businesses because it brings people in, but even more importantly having special needs adults have a place where they come and work and feel included in our community is so needed.”

When she came to the soft opening for the eatery, Caudle said, “It was really hard not to get emotional with the whole prep kitchen filled with special needs adults that are all working together as a team. They all had a smile on their face. It serves a bigger purpose than just coming in to get a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup.”

Mayor Emery Doughtie said, “It’s good to see a long line at the ordering place. Obviously Ms. Harris has got some support from the community. The place has a lot of history from our textile industry in here which is good to see us remembering that.”

Doughtie has memories of coming into The Mill when it was a jewelry store. “I’m very optimistic that people will support it because a business no matter how good they do they have to have the community to support them.”

Ginny Lewis, president and CEO of the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce said, “To see life on the avenue again is just fabulous.”

Watching the activity around The Mill, Lewis said, “I see the caring. That’s my philosophy as far as kids. A lot of times all it takes is that hand on the back and just guide them with love. You see that through Melissa, just the caring. She holds them accountable but it’s all done through love.”