December 10, 2018

A Place in the World

Cadillac’s After 26 Depot Helps Connect Disabled Adults to Their Community
Jan. 1, 2016

Forty-four-year-old Keith is finally in touch with the world. As he washed dishes, he thought about why he loves his job at After 26 Depot restaurant in Cadillac. Keith, who is cognitively disabled, once worked at a sheltered factory that employs disabled adults. He liked that OK, but this place is different. This is better. This job comes with contact with the world and a diverse group of coworkers.

"I can pick on my coworkers – all the waitresses," he laughed. "I can pick on them and they can dish it out, right back to me."

CONVERSATION OVER CAKE

David Guant is board chairman of the nonprofit organization that operates the restaurant. He said Keith is an example of what After 26’s founders hoped for when they began in 2007.

"Keith lives in a group home in Manton; he rides the bus to get here to work," Gaunt said. "Before he had this job, he had nothing. There was no place for him to go. There was no place for him to work. When we opened, back in June 2013, Keith was so excited and we pulled him aside and said, "˜Wha’d’ya think, Keith?’ And he said, "˜This is the best day of my life.’ I mean, that’s the kind of impact this has."

Gaunt worked as an administrator for the Wexford-Missaukee Intermediate School District until he retired in 2006. While he didn’t work with disabled students directly, his office shared a building with the special education program and his wife taught special education, which allowed him to get to know some of the students.

An invitation to a graduation party for a student who was about to turn 26 – the point when most special education students "age out" of public school – helped Gaunt understand a difficult challenge faced by this population.

"We were sitting in their garage, having a piece of graduation cake, and Michael – he’s autistic and he’s walking around greeting everybody, and he’s just a great young man – and I asked, "˜So, what happens to Michael now? Because now he’s not going to go to school on Monday,’" Gaunt said. "And [his mother] said, "˜We don’t know. He can volunteer places; we’ll make sure he has opportunities, but there are so few.’"

SEVEN EXTRA YEARS OF SCHOOL

The seven years of school after a disabled person turns 18 are intended to prepare them for life in the outside world, but very few are ever prepared for holding a job, Gaunt said. Understanding this failure was the genesis of the After 26 Depot.

Disabled employees at After 26 are called "project workers." They suffer from Down syndrome, autism, developmental disabilities or cognitive impairments.

Of the 34 employees at After 26, 21 are project workers. Among the other employees are a manager, two cooks, one waitperson and two job coaches who train the project workers to be successful at their job and to keep focused on what they are supposed to do.

Disabled workers require extra attention for which private employers are often unwilling to pay. Gaunt said the idea for a nonprofit restaurant came from the only other one he’s aware of in the country, Junction of Hope in Chesaning, Mich.

Soon after that graduation party, Guant connected with a group of people already discussing better ways for disabled adults to spend their lives. Former After 26 board member Andrew MacDonald had a disabled sister who worked at Junction of Hope and he brought the idea to Cadillac.

"Trying to get these young adults hooked up with any kind of employment was very challenging, so they just said, "˜Why don’t we just open a restaurant where we can employ, we can train – depending on the level – train so that they can go out and get another job after here?’" Gaunt said.

As the group gained traction, they started to inquire about what it would take to open a restaurant. They set a goal of raising $50,000. They held a bake sale. Looking back, Gaunt can’t believe how naive they were.

A DEPOT RESTORATION

In the beginning, the effort was known as the After 26 Project. It became known as After 26 Depot when organizers focused on a rundown train station in downtown Cadillac.

They learned that half the building was available from the Amvets, who owned it, but they also learned the electric was out of code, the roof leaked and everywhere they looked needed repairing.

Gaunt was able to lure an architect friend, Paul Gasske, to the project.

"I had lunch with him one day, kitty corner from here, and we looked out the window at this building and I said, "˜Paul, how fun would it be to renovate a place like that?’" Gaunt recalls. "And he said, "˜Oh my god, that would be great.’ And I said, "˜I’m glad you said that.’" The architect soon shared difficult news: turning the depot into a restaurant would cost half a million dollars.

"I’ll never forget. We met at the Big Boy restaurant, with the board and with Paul, because he had everything done. We were so excited," Gaunt said. "And then we looked at the cost and it was $505,000, and we kind of looked at each other and said, "˜How do we do this?’" They started fundraising. They visited every group that would see them.

One critical juncture was a church visit where an elderly parishioner, Bill Bryan, liked the project enough to offer a $10,000 donation.

"That was stunning to us," Gaunt said. "And I think that was the point at which we realized that if we can get the word out, people will believe in what we are trying to do." The donation also gave them credibility. Gaunt said the charitable gift helped them win a $75,000 USDA grant for kitchen equipment. That was followed by more government money and grants from DTE Energy.

HOPE TO TURN A PROFIT

The nonprofit’s long-term goal is to make money so they can help other organizations open nonprofit restaurants. They get calls all the time from people in other cities who want to follow their model.

So far, Gaunt said, they remain decidedly nonprofit. After 26’s expenses are around $300,000 each year and their revenue is $250,000. They host fundraisers to make up the difference.

"The gap was bigger three years ago and it’s getting narrower," Gaunt said. "If we were trying to run it as a for-profit, the way we’d do business would be entirely different. I’m an educator. So the restaurant business has been all new to me, as it has [to] everybody on our board. It’s a really tough business to be in."

Over time, they’ve gained regular customers and steady business throughout most of the year. This enables After 26 to fulfill its mission: to give its project workers purpose in their lives.

At the restaurant, Gaunt sees signs of that purpose every day. At fundraisers, for example, project workers are exposed to an atmosphere they otherwise would not likely encounter; they are not invited to a lot of parties.

"They’ll start dancing," Gaunt said. "The entertainers bring them up and then they’ll become a focal point. They don’t get an opportunity to do that unless they have a place like this that they call their own."

On the other side, this community interaction provided an additional benefit that After 26 organizers didn’t anticipate: giving the general public exposure to a population that is otherwise hidden.

"The benefit goes into the community, where people come to understand the capabilities of project workers and how they can contribute to society in very meaningful ways," Gaunt said.

"SHE JUST LOOKS FORWARD TO IT"

When Cal Reynolds retired and moved from downstate to Cadillac, his daughter, who has Down syndrome, had just turned 26 and there was very little for her to do. When he heard about the project, Reynolds joined the board and did anything he could to make the idea a reality.

Forty-three-year-old Nicole is delighted to work at After 26.

"She loves going to work," Reynolds said.

"She works up there two or three days a week and she just looks forward to it; she loves it."

Reynolds said he hopes customers see that disabled adults can be productive, useful workers.

"The word is spreading and the other business people are seeing that they are good workers," Reynolds said. "We've only got 20 working there now and there are a lot more than 20 in the community [who could use a job]."

Lyn Hughes is a board member who has been with the project since the beginning. She has an autistic son who works at the restaurant. She said that when her son was in school, she overheard him talking about what he wanted to do during an upcoming vacation. He said he wanted to stay home and stay up late and watch TV. She became determined that he wouldn’t spend his life that way and she realized he needed something productive to do.

Since her son started working at the restaurant, he’s learned social skills and cooking skills that Hughes finds astounding.

"If you said to me 10 years ago that my then 23-year-old son could handle a knife accurately and safely, I would have told you you’re nuts," Hughes said.

PROJECT WORKERS

Project workers don’t make minimum wage, which some people find objectionable.

"There are those that believe that we should be paying them all minimum wage," Gaunt said. "From the financial standpoint, we hire job coaches at more than the minimum wage to work with those who aren’t quite making minimum wage, so in terms of what we’re paying for any particular activity, it’s actually more than a for-profit would."

Project workers make a deviated wage, which is calculated based on their ability.

Project workers also don’t support themselves and most receive government benefits.

In one case, a project worker’s newfound income caused trouble and the restaurant manager had to intervene.

"One of the project workers who was not in a good living situation, without getting too detailed about it, was not making very good choices with the money he was getting and not living at home any more, and almost living on the street in a very unsafe situation," Guant said. "A person had taken him in who was taking advantage of him."

The restaurant manager had to go to court to arrange guardianship to protect the project worker’s interests. The worker was removed from the negative situation, placed in a group home and is now doing well.

The manager "said she never really knows what the line is between employer and social worker because that’s really what we’re about," Gaunt said. "We are watching out for their best interests."

NOTHING LIKE OTHER RESTAURANTS

Stephanie Elsholz has worked at After 26 for a year and a half. It didn’t take long for the career restaurant worker to discover that this place is not like others.

"I have a lot of heart in this particular business," she said. "This is nothing like anywhere else I’ve worked."

This job has more meaning than others because of the relationships she’s developed with the project workers. She’s watched people begin work afraid to talk to people and quickly blossom.

Elsholz thinks of one worker in particular. "He was really quiet and shy and now he’s very talkative; he writes notes to the staff about how much he appreciates us as family."

Kerry, a 32-year-old project worker, waited patiently at the coffee bar for customers.

She said she loves her job, especially because it offers access to delicious restaurant food.

"It’s fun," Kerry said. "I like to eat." Her favorite items are sandwiches and French fries.

Dave McMahon, a pastor at First Baptist of Cadillac, recently had lunch at After 26 with a group of other ministers, and said he appreciates the attentive service of the project workers. "They have a good heart, a friendly attitude; you’re always greeted with a smile here," he said. "It’s great to have a business which has a mission besides being able to turn a profit."

He added, "Besides, the food’s good."

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