|The Em and Jerri Story: From Creativity to Coffee|
"What would you like for lunch," asked the friendly voice behind the counter. Then, recognizing that I am blind, she began reading the menu. Insightful under any circumstances, it's particularly impressive when you realize that the voice belongs to a woman who has worked the Em and Jerri's coffee shop counter for only two months after years of unemployment.
The "Em" of Em and Jerri's is Emilea Hillman, a vivacious 21-year-old entrepreneur who happens to have a disability. The "Jerri" is Jerri Reisner, Em's job coach and the coffee shop's manager.
"In the fall of 2008, a group began meeting to discuss employment options for people with disabilities in Independence," said Tami Fenner, Em's mother. "The group got smaller and smaller, until the only people remaining were Em's support team."
The team consists of Tami, Em's sister Ashlea and her husband, and Jerri, then a community trainer at Goodwill. Recognizing that the traditional service system would not allow Em to reach her potential, they began to brainstorm. Em needed something which would allow frequent contact with the public. Both coffee shops in Independence had closed. The idea to create Em and Jerri's was born.
Tami set her informal network in motion, contacting a friend who works for the Iowa Department of Human Services. Her friend referred her to Sheila Stoekel, an
The team's enterprising spirit then kicked into high gear. Deciding on a 1950's motif, the team purchased and received donations of materials and furniture. Em and Jerri recovered chairs. Em attended barista training in Minneapolis, and with some minor modifications
When I arrived, Em and Jerri's was a hub of activity. Between greeting customers, answering the phone, and supervising staff, Em found a few minutes to talk to me.
With the assistance of a fellow housing board member, Tami recently secured a $22,500 USDA grant which will assist Em to cover payroll, rent and utilities. Grant funds also purchased woodworking tools and lumber, allowing Em to launch a satellite business,
Em and Jerri's is already giving back to the community. A section of the shop, called the Newsroom, is dedicated to the Independence Bulletin-Journal, which once occupied the premises. Prominently displayed is a copy of a page from a 1921 issue. On the reverse
The Bulletin-Journal's editor, whose brother has Down syndrome, has drawn inspiration from Em's accomplishments. So, too, has the mother of a 14-year-old boy with autism who
This writer, too, has drawn inspiration from Em. He is reminded of Ed Roberts, the founder of the Independent Living movement, who was told by professionals that he could not be competitively employed due to the severity of his disability. When Em was born, her
Em and Jerri's is open from 6 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday, and 7 AM to 2 PM on
-- BY MICHAEL HOENIG OF THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA'S CENTER FOR DISABILITIES AND DEVELOPMENT