At Tim’s Place in Albuquerque, N.M., Tim Harris serves customers breakfast, lunch, and hugs.
“Sometimes customers get sad, I give them a hug and they feel a lot better,” Harris told AOL News as he stood by the restaurant’s door, greeting babies, old women, and parents. “My hugs are way more important than the food,” he said, laughing.
Harris likely is the first restaurant owner in the nation with Down syndrome. He demonstrates daily how babies born with an extra chromosome can lead normal, productive lives, investing in their communities and bringing joy to others. But as today marks World Down Syndrome Day, people like Harris are becoming more and more rare. A 2009 study found 92 percent of women worldwide whose babies are diagnosed with Down syndrome choose abortion. As non-invasive prenatal testing becomes more prevalent, that number is expected to raise.
Harris’s dad, Keith, remembers his world turning black when he first heard the doctor say his newborn had Down syndrome. In a recording for NPR’s StoryCorps, Keith tells his son “when you were born I was filled with a lot of doubts about whether I could be a good enough dad to be your dad. And many years later now, I’m so happy to have you in my life. I’m very, very proud of you and what you’ve accomplished.”
Keith said that as Tim grew up, he treated him the same as his three brothers. Tim went to a public high school, where classmates voted him homecoming king. He worked restaurant jobs after school, and dreamed about going to college.
“I wanted to learn to be independent, so I can become a businessman,” he said on NPR. He moved three hours away from home to study food services, office skills, and restaurant hosting at Eastern New Mexico University in 2004. Although he said at first he missed his parents, he soon adjusted to college life, even hosting dance parties in his dorm.
Keith Harris provided the investment to open the restaurant in 2010, and hired people to help manage operations and cook the food, including his brother Dan. But it’s Tim’s friendly service that brings people in. Tim Harris told NPR “it felt awesome” the day the restaurant opened. “I wanted to own a restaurant ever since I was a kid. That was my dream.”
Now 27, Harris lives on his own in an apartment within walking distance of Tim’s Place. He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to come to work and welcome customers at the front door. He said he also serves people food and drinks, but his most important job is the hugs: “It’s the best part.” And he’s done a good job at that: A digital counter on the wall tallies more than 33,000 hugs, and reviewers have given Tim’s Place four stars on Yelp.
Harris said he’s grateful for his parents’ support and love. He calls them his “superheroes.” He also sees the impact he has on families who come to the restaurant with children with Down syndrome.
"Families tell me, 'You inspire my kid. There's hope for my son or daughter,'” Harris said on NPR. “And when I see people with disabilities and they tell me, 'Tim, I want to be like you,' it's pretty cool."