Evanston bakery Sugar & Spice hires individuals with autism

Emily Chin, Assistant Campus Editor

Evanston bakery Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Sweet Treats has partnered with Chicago-area nonprofit Have Dreams, to teach a class for people with autism to gain skills for the workforce.

The Coleman Foundation, which gives grants in the field of developmental disabilities, gave Sugar & Spice and Have Dreams $125,000 to create the program and share it with other small employers.

“This is a growing population, individuals with autism, so it’s a challenge that we’re going to increasingly see in our society,” said Clark McCain, senior program officer at The Coleman Foundation.

McCain said the partnership between the bakery and Have Dreams indicated both organizations “could really understand the business case” for employing people with autism.

Participants in the 10-week class work at Sugar & Spice packaging cakes and cookies three days a week and spend time at Have Dreams two days a week. Bakery owner Jean Kroll  said she hopes that through working in the commercial kitchen, participants will learn the basics of interaction and teamwork.

“They learn the soft skills that allow people to be successful at work,” Kroll said. “All the things that people take for granted.”

Kroll said she was inspired to help people with autism after learning of a friend’s struggles to keep a job after college.

Over the summer, Kroll worked with Have Dreams to create a pilot class with three people with autism for six weeks, she said. After the program was over, she offered them all seasonal employment at the bakery.

“It’s a safe place to learn appropriate workplace behaviors, because we expect that there will be hiccups and we use those occasions to reinforce what is appropriate workplace behavior,” she said. “This is a safe place to learn without any repercussions.”

In a typical day, Kroll will go over her employees’ assignment, which lately has involved packaging. Kroll said she teaches participants how to set goals, solve problems, work by themselves and work effectively as part of a team.

Though it was initially difficult to incorporate the new employees into the pre-existing staff, her entire staff now has Friday team lunches and there is a level of camaraderie in the bakery, Kroll said.

“Starting anything new can be challenging for everyone involved,” she said. “This was a pretty big shift for us.”

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