The motivation for Gerry’s Café has been percolating in the quarter-century since Natalie Griffin was a special education support teacher working with preschooler Garrett Anderson of Lake Zurich.
“This has been my passion. I’ve come full circle,” Griffin says before an open house last Wednesday explaining an innovative endeavor to create a coffee shop cafe that employs adults with developmental disabilities. “My heart was calling me to come back to this same population.”
Griffin started her career in special education at Kirk School in Palatine after graduating from the University of Illinois in 1984. She did other work with the North Suburban Special Education Organization and volunteered at Clearbrook Center, which provides programs and service to children and adults with a range of disabilities. She floated her idea of a cafe staffed by adults with developmental disabilities to friend Amy Philpott.
“We met over glasses of wine,” remembers Philpott, a former president of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce who owned the Tuscan Market and Wine Shop in Arlington Heights from 2007 until 2015. “I looked at her and said, ‘What are you really looking for?’ I read between the lines.”
Philpott, a former manager for FedEx and Trader Joe’s, lives in Palatine with her wife, Chris Nisbet, and now makes her living in real estate. Griffin grew up in Palatine and moved to Arlington Heights with her husband, Gene, to raise their three children. Griffin and Philpott quickly teamed up to create their Brewing Opportunities not-for-profit charity. The charity’s fundraising efforts earned a matching $100,000 grant from Wintrust and support from the community. Hersey High School students in Arlington Heights have adopted Gerry’s Café as the charity they’ll support as part of their “inclusion revolution,” and other schools across Northwest Suburban High School District 214 soon might join the campaign. Business leaders such as Andy Starck of Berkshire Hathaway Starck Real Estate in Arlington Heights support the Gerry’s Café effort financially and through other means.
“I think this could be a really good thing,” says Shannon Kersemeier, who works in real estate for her father, Starck. Her daughter, Molly, has Down syndrome and turned 11 this week.
“C’mon, get open,” pleads a smiling Lori Bein, superintendent of Arlington Heights School District 25, which serves 5,500 students in seven elementary schools and two middle schools. “It’s our kids and our community, and we can’t wait for you to open.”
While many suburban schools and charities host a variety of programs for children with special needs, those opportunities diminish on the day before a student turns 22. “I see that as a huge, huge problem,” says Mary Ann Jahrling, a longtime District 214 guidance counselor and a board member for the Gerry’s Café charity.
Studies show that nearly 80 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed or working in jobs as volunteers or interns making less than minimum wage, Griffin says.
“There are companies and businesses just unwilling to take a chance. They are afraid,” Griffin says, adding that many studies show that workers with developmental disabilities exhibit qualities employers want, such as reliability, dependability, getting along with co-workers, loyalty and respect for authority.
A cafe that employs adults with developmental disabilities in Wilmington, North Carolina, won a CNN “Hero” award in 2016. Griffin was impressed, but wanted to make sure the employees actually did the work. So she traveled to Bitty & Beau’s Coffee to see how their operation worked.
“I’d watch customers come in for two straight days and burst into smiles,” Griffin recalls. “Everyone who came in felt that joy and was celebrated.”
She says she’s determined to bring that same spirit to a cafe in Arlington Heights in early 2020 if the fall fundraising campaign can bring the startup funds to between $350,000 and $500,000. The goal is to pay competitive wages to about 30 employees and open a training facility and, eventually, other cafes.
Struggling to find a name for the new cafe, Griffin had an epiphany while eating with Philpott at Egg Harbor.
“Oh, did I ever tell you about my Aunt Gerry?” Philpott said. Born with Down syndrome in 1958 and dying shortly before her fourth birthday, Geralyn Wehmer “brought unconditional love, laughter and joy” to her family and friends, Philpott says. So much so that people who remember Gerry have sent checks to Philpott’s aunts to help fund the cafe.
At a launch party earlier this year for Gerry’s Café, Garrett Anderson, once a toddler in Griffin’s special education class, delivered a powerful speech explaining how Gerry’s Café could change lives for the better.
“I live by myself and have a car,” says Anderson, 30. He now resides in Palatine, works as a greeter at Regal Lake Zurich movie theater, and has acted in several community theater performances. The outgoing Anderson says he doesn’t like the label of developmentally disabled and prefers the term “exceptionality,” which acknowledges that some people with disabilities can be exceptionally hard working, exceptionally conscientious, or exceptionally kind and happy.
Can he see himself working at Gerry’s Café some day?
“That,” Anderson says with a chuckle and a nod toward Griffin, “is a question for this one. “
Information on how to donate is at www.gerryscafe.org.