Cafe serves up real world opportunities for special needs staff

GLENVIEW, Ill - At first glance, the little Perk Center Cafe looks pretty regular. It's display window stocked full of fresh baked goods and the coffee is always piping hot. But those who line up here for their daily cup of joe, say this is their favorite place for a different reason, the people working the other side of the counter.

"I love working here!" said Nina Santacrose, an employee at the cafe. "I am a cash register. I help give out change and I give others card and gift cards."

Nearly all of Perk Center Cafe's staff has developmental disabilities, ranging from autism to down syndrome.

"Working in the real world and that's a thing that could be tougher to find in some areas, but we make that our primary mission," said Jacob Metrick, who helped create the Perk Center Cafe.

The cafe was the brainchild of Metrick who has an autistic  sister. Together with other moms who had children with developmental disabilities, they wanted to have a place where their adult children could work once they transitioned out of state supported programs at 22.

An employee named Noah was the first employee at the cafe. He started in December of 2008.

And he's still stocking these shelves nine years later.

"It's amazing. I never ever envisioned that he'd be able to be working, getting a paycheck, buying things on his own. Having a sense of fulfillment and also a sense of community," said Ellen Bronfeld, Noah's mom.

And that's why these regular customers keep coming back.

"We've understood what the history was but understanding who the people are has only come with going to the café on a weekly basis," said Berwl Bills, a customer at the cafe.

For employees like Nina, the Perk Center Cafe gives them not just a job, but a purpose.

"What we've seen which has been the most surprising to us with a lot of our employees is that independence. and the growth  in independence, self confidence, the growth in verbal skills for those who have limited verbal skills," said Bronfeld.

For each cup of coffee handed out, these special employees are getting something back.

"I am a people person. I love working here," said Nina.

"The sense of self worth , the confidence and self-esteem, you can't put a value on that," said Bronfeld.

This story was provided by our sister station WGN.

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