In 1958, Geralyn Wehmer was born with Down Syndrome. And while Amy Philpott, co-founder of soon-to-open Gerry’s Café, never met her personally, Geralyn’s influence on her family’s history fostered a passion for serving those who have been marginalized.
Geralyn died just shy of her fourth birthday, but her legacy lives on in a safe space for those with disabilities to work, learn and grow.
The vision for the cafe, set to open in Arlington Heights after the pandemic, began when co-founder and former special education teacher Natalie Griffin visited Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington, N.C.
This coffee shop had a similar mission to employ those with disabilities. After watching the cafe grow on social media, Griffin went to check out the business in person.
“I wanted to see if it was authentic; that the employees were actually doing their jobs independently. And they were,” Griffin says. “They were very proud of their work; they were very efficient at their work. But the greatest thing I came away with from the cafe was that the people who came in through the community would just burst into smiles. It really brought together this sense of joy for everyone in the experience and pride for the employees.”
After that, she knew she wanted to open a cafe like that in her own backyard. So, she contacted her friend Philpott. A previous restaurant owner, the two make a perfect pair with personal stakes within the company.
Gerry’s Cafe was set to open within the next three to six months, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, this endeavor is being pushed back until further notice.
For now, the cafe has created a virtual auction that ends Nov. 15. Local artists, some of whom have disabilities, are selling their art with the proceeds split between commissions for the artists and donations to Gerry’s Café.
“We want to be the place that people think about first,” Philpott says. “Not only to take their conscious dollars, but if people want to go out and have a good cup of coffee, a wonderful baked good, or a fresh made-to-order item. Our employees are making it; it’s not coming out of a truck that was prepared seven or eight days ago, wrapped in cellophane where employees are just handing something back. They’re physically using their education and talent to create a product. That way they find success, they feel value. And in turn, our customers will feel good about themselves by actually helping someone have a good fair paying wage.”
The Arlington Heights cafe plans to employ adults with disabilities who are 22 years and older. The age is intentional, as after a person with special needs turns 22, he or she can no longer attend school in the state of Illinois.
“I have a friend who has a daughter who is 24 years old with Down syndrome and she’s been looking for a job for two years,” Griffin says. “And while there are some businesses that we notice that hire, such as grocery stores hire baggers, the mom clearly and frankly said to me, ‘What if my daughter doesn’t want to be a bagger? What if she wants a different job?’”
This is exactly what Gerry’s Café plans to change. With adult volunteer pods to help train employees, as well as giving the employees the chance to choose their position and desired work, they’re no longer designated to being just baggers.
With this in mind, Philpott says, “We plan to be something big, something grand, and something very effective for more than the people in the Northwest Suburbs.”
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