Amy McBee, Kali Cooke and Abbey Kiser show some of the coffee mug designs created by special education students at Bluffton High School. McBee and Kiser, who are employees at Corner Perk, sometimes join Cooke, co-owner of the café and coffee shop, for vi

Customers who visited Corner Perk on May River Road in early December might have noticed some colorful mugs sitting next to the ordering station and perched in the front window.

These were not just any coffee mugs, though. They were the artful creations of a group of local artists. In fact, the artists are students at May River and Bluffton high schools.

The mugs were part of a project started by Kali Cooke, co-owner, with her husband Josh, of the Corner Perk.

The project, she said, had sort of simmered in her head for a while. “I had been thinking about it for a couple of years,” Cooke said. Finally, in September, the BURLAP Project came together. That’s an acronym for “Building Unique Relationships through Love, Art and Play.”

Cooke, who was a music therapist for 10 years before Corner Perk, envisioned a way to involve members of the community she felt had been left out. “I thought special education was one area that was overlooked in our community,” she said.

Her idea fit beautifully with the mission of the Corner Perk. As she and her husband were growing their business, they also wanted to find ways to connect with the community around them. “Our mission is to provide ‘artfully crafted goodness bringing people together with people,'” she said.

For the students, the project would introduce them to members of the community they might not otherwise meet. It would help them build social skills and meaningful relationships, to improve their self-esteem and confidence, and explore their creativity.

Cooke reached out to the high schools and began meeting with special education students in both schools. She wanted to connect with their community in a way that could teach them new skills. “I wanted to go and do coffee-related art projects,” she said. At the same time, “I would talk to them about business, about being an entrepreneur.”

The students made coasters, cup sleeves and finally the mugs. Along the way, a couple of her employees asked if they could go with her. One of them, Amy McBee, had a particular interest because her son, Jonathn, is a sophomore in the Bluffton High class. “It’s cool, because some of the kids come here to work on Fridays, which teaches them life skills,” she said. “Then we go to the schools to talk to the kids.”

Cooke provided the white ceramic mugs and paint pens. She and her helpers worked with the students to paint the mugs, each according to his or her individual abilities.

“My son loved it,” McBee said.

Cooke then baked the painted mugs to set the colors. When they were complete, they went to Corner Perk and put on display.

“We had talked about pricing – about how much the mugs would cost and how much to charge,” Cooke said. The price was set at a $10 donation.

The first batch of 16, made by May River students, sold quickly. The second batch of 24, painted by Bluffton High students, sold out in four days.

One hundred percent of the proceeds go right back into the classroom, Cooke said.

Meeting with the students has been fun, said Abbey Kiser, a Corner Perk employee who joins Cooke in sessions with the students. “It was interesting to watch them come up with a creative to draw on a mug. Their creative processes are all unique.”

Cooke agreed. “These kids are so amazing,” she said. “We just have to find out what they’re good at, what makes them tick.”

Cooke advises that the community should be on the lookout for more projects as they come about. And if anyone knows of a group she and her helpers could work with, to let her know.

“I’d love to do something like this once a quarter,” Cooke said. “And then, maybe monthly. We are just getting started.”