Constable: Post-pandemic event puts Gerry's Café back on course
The bold dream of Natalie Griffin and Amy Philpott to open Gerry's Café, staffed by adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, was making great progress. Then, the pandemic arrived in the spring of 2020.
"On March 17, we had a purposeful pause on any active fundraising," says Philpott, a former president of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce.
"We were slammed like everyone else," Griffin says. "And I cried a lot."
It was all smiles Monday as Griffin and Philpott kicked off the inaugural Gerry's Café Golf Classic at Old Orchard Country Club in Mount Prospect, their first major fundraiser of the year. The event sold out in a week, with 144 golfers, 74 financial sponsors and 70 volunteers, including many prospective employees.
"I want to be a chef. I cook at home," says Jamie Brooks, 24, who lives in Arlington Heights and rattles off a litany of her favorite dishes, starting with apple crisp.
"I love to serve coffee. I love to serve food," says Ela Stoklosa, 31, of Wheeling. "I like to mingle and talk to people."
Already practicing for a job as greeter, Cristina Cassata, 25, of Arlington Heights, says, "Welcome to Gerry's Café. Can I assist you?"
While the suburbs boast many schools and charities that host programs for children with special needs, those opportunities often dry up when state funding ends on the day before a student turns 22. Studies show that nearly 80% of adults with disabilities are unemployed or working in jobs as volunteers or interns making less than minimum wage, Griffin says.
Growing up in Palatine and moving to Arlington Heights, where she and her husband, Gene, raised three children, Griffin says she understands the need for quality jobs for that hardworking and loyal segment of society often overlooked by other employers. Griffin, who worked in special education at Kirk School in Palatine and the North Suburban Special Education Organization, told Philpott about her idea for creating jobs for those populations.
Philpott owned the Tuscan Market and Wine Shop in Arlington Heights until 2015, and is a former manager for FedEx and Trader Joe's. Now she lives in Palatine with her wife, Chris Nisbet, and makes a living in real estate.
Struggling to find a name for the new cafe, Griffin had an epiphany while eating with Philpott at Egg Harbor Cafe and hearing Philpott talk about her Aunt Gerry. Gerry lived at home with her family, even though experts said the girl, born in 1958 with Down syndrome, should be sent to an institution because she'd be too disruptive in a family home.
"It was quite the polar opposite. She was sheer joy," Philpott says, her eyes watering as she tells about how much little Gerry, who died shortly before her 4th birthday, still affects her extended family, who donate time and money to the cause.
Philpott and Griffin launched their not-for-profit, Brewing Opportunities, and had instant success raising money for the cafe venture. Wintrust, which donated $20,000 at the golf outing, issued a matching $100,000 grant in the beginning. Other business leaders, and even clubs at local high schools, helped the charity reach its goal of $500,000 on Dec. 31, 2020.
Money raised at the golf event and other fundraisers now can be used to pay for insurance, business taxes, a delivery vehicle and other expenses, the founders say. They are looking for an appropriate space in Arlington Heights for Gerry's Café and can realistically expect an opening sometime in 2022.
Gerry's Café will serve made-to-order breakfast and lunch, coffee and snacks, and offer catering services. Griffin and Philpott hope to provide training and jobs for 40 adults, launch other restaurants, and help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities find jobs throughout the community.
Stephen McVoy, 42, of Arlington Heights has a part-time job with that town's park district, but he hopes to be a greeter or cook as soon as Gerry's Café opens. Nate Hollenbeck, 22, of Palatine has a part-time job at a Mariano's but says, "I want to be a chef."
Hanna Fechik, 22, of Mount Prospect says she is a "social person" and could be a greeter. But she also hopes she can sell her adult coloring pages, painting, sculptures and other artwork at Gerry's Café.
Once a toddler in Griffin's special education class, Garrett Anderson, 32, works as a greeter at the Regal Lake Zurich movie theater. But the Palatine man says he can't wait for Gerry's Café to open. "I would like to learn to be a cashier. I want to work on my money skills," Anderson says.
The money raised on the golf course Monday moves Philpott and Griffin one step closer to their goal. For more information about the effort, visit gerryscafe.org.