The broken lock that June morning made Sandra Rivers sick to her stomach. She knew it wouldn’t be good after raising the gate on her business.   “Everything was gone,” Rivers said.

The cappuccino machine and convection oven, the cash register and fryer, the cake display case and refrigerators for food and soft beverages.

Rivers passed out in front of the café she was going to open in September at 2 Treat Place, a narrow downtown Newark street between Branford Place and William Street near Teachers Village.

They took everything but the kitchen sink. Actually, they made off with one of those, too. And, they stole things they didn’t need: two American Sign Language clocks, sign language cards and picture frames with words that people could use to practice sign language. They had no conscious about who it would serve, even though the name of the business is plastered on the window.

Deaf’s Delight Café.

Believed to be first of its kind in the state, the eatery of light fare – sandwiches, tea, coffee – was going to be the social spot for the deaf community and hard of hearing in Newark and beyond.

The deaf and hard of hearing is estimated to be 12,000 in Newark and 720,000 statewide. Rivers said this population needs a place to hang after work just like those of us who can hear.

The theft, which is still under investigation by Newark police, crushed Rivers financially. She lost her life savings, about $90,000 that she accumulated in 15 years as a retail manager.

How could this happen? Rivers signed a two-year lease in March, then heard about a great deal on appliances at a store going out of business. She stored her newly-bought equipment at the café and scheduled an appointment a week later in June with an insurance agent.

The meeting to secure her investment never happened. Her stuff was gone. Rivers, whose hearing is declining, was on Facebook Live in tears, telling the deaf community what happened as she walked through her place that was still under construction.

Emotionally, she was devastated. The business was a tribute to her parents, the late Jean Thomas and Robert Dandridge. Her mother was deaf. Her father was mute, meaning he was deaf and couldn’t speak. They died 11 years ago, having never enjoyed social amenities many take for granted.

At restaurants, Rivers said her mother was served embarrassment and humiliation. The hosts didn’t have patience, urging her to write down her thoughts when they couldn’t understand that all she wanted was to be seated for a meal with her five daughters. Rivers, now 48, remembers being a child seeing patrons laughing, snickering under their breath, calling her mother names.

“She would just grab us, and we wouldn’t eat,” Rivers said. “Watching my parents struggle in a world that wasn’t built for them was kind of hard.”

This café represents the future, one the deaf community in Newark eagerly anticipated when they learned what Rivers was doing. They hurt for Rivers, knowing the ground she was breaking.

“She tried so hard to do this for the deaf community,” said Kent Williams, a Newark resident who is deaf and hard of hearing. “It took a lot of heart for her to do something like that.”

In New Jersey, there’s nowhere for the deaf community to gather unless someone sponsors a social event like Rivers recently did in September.

The café was designed to give the deaf community a space to congregate and interact with people who can hear. Rivers was hiring deaf and hearing employees fluent in sign language, so there would always be somebody to talk the deaf community. She had plans for open mic night with deaf people signing poetry and songs.

Rivers was working on a deaf television network to provide programming for the deaf community. There would be deaf news, weather, and sports.

“They can have fellowship, they can have their own sip and paint parties, their movies in their own language,” Rivers said. “I wanted them to walk in and feel like ‘wow,’ this is for us.’”