Naperville bride hires students with disabilities to create recycled invites
The raw material for Samantha Hudelson's wedding invitations starts in a Naperville classroom, where a student tosses it into a recycling bin.
It meets a shredder, where the student's notes become unreadable and the paper morphs into strips, ready to be weighed and packaged into bags of a standard size.
Then the bags head to the lab at the Connections program in Naperville Unit District 203. There, a laminated set of instructions -- using not words but 11 pictures -- shows students how to launch the shards on a journey to become paper once again, this time for Hudelson's invites.
The Naperville bride-to-be is the first major client outside of the district to commission printing work from microConnections, a business run by students with disabilities ages 18 to 22 who participate in the Connections transitional education program.
Student workers at microConnections make note cards, bookmarks, gift tags, dog and cat toys, organic dog treats, lanyards, bracelets and blankets, and they have for the past three years. But they typically don't know who buys their handiwork.
The order from Hudelson changes the game and gives them a deadline. By July, they must make 200 top-quality, recycled, colorful cards, using all of the steps in their paper production process, a process educators say helps them learn the skills they'll need to be employed.
"It's a real-world opportunity for our students," said Maura Anderson, supervisor of transition services for students with disabilities. "They know they are creating a product that's going to be used by someone."
Hudelson, 32, first bought a pack of recycled note cards made by microConnections from Peace boutique in downtown Naperville before she got engaged. She was intrigued by the cards' earth-friendly nature.
"I just thought they were super-beautiful, and I loved the fact that they used recycled paper from different school districts and they have the flower petals from Trader Joe's," Hudelson said. "I really liked the fact that they were 100 percent recycled."
Hudelson chatted with boutique owner Kate Mason and learned who made the cards.
"I think it's a great program what they're doing for the young adults," she said. "That was the icing on the cake."
When she got engaged to fiance Dritan Kadiu, the cards came back to mind.
She connected with Anderson, toured the room called "the lab," where Connections students spend part of their day working on the paper business, and placed her order in early fall. Her wedding is set for Sept. 7 at Blumen Gardens in Sycamore, a garden and gift shop combined with a landscaping company and wedding venue.
"It's a very eclectic type of wedding," Hudelson said. "A lot of plants and earthy things."
The invitations made by microConnections, which also will contain poppy seeds, at the bride's request, will fit right in.
"People can plant the card," Hudelson said, "and then flowers will grow from it."
But first the cards must come into being.
By October in the lab, the blenders were buzzing, the pulp was being shaped into paper, the drying racks were dripping and the presses were compressing to flatten each sheet.
LisaMarie Camp, a teacher and microConnections team leader, says classes of three to six students can make 10 pieces of paper an hour.
Working with teachers, aides and volunteers, students follow photo direction sheets to fill, cover, run and empty the blender, or flatten formed pieces of paper using several presses. Some students wear headphones, blocking some of the noise from the blender, and others take breaks by bouncing on a springy chair.
Once students ensure each sheet is blended, formed, dried and sent through six pressing stations -- including a hot iron -- they fold the pages and inspect their product.
Teachers say the work helps students learn organization, workplace procedures, following instructions, managing inventory, tracking orders and communicating with bosses.
"The students can see the whole process," Camp said.
Connections students also are making envelopes for Hudelson's invitations and will be gluing in printed inserts containing the details about the wedding.
Hudelson said she's asked the microConnections students to place their stamp on the back of each card, so guests can learn about the program.
"It's very important for people to hear what they're doing," she said. "I never knew until I stumbled across the cards at Peace."
The invitations created by the microConnections team won't be uniform. They'll come in shades of purple, blue, green, pink and yellow. This bride likes it that way.
"It's all about letting them do their thing," Hudelson said. "I love everything they do."