Jean Kroll of I LoveSweets, left, and Bobbi Frazes Goldman of Have Dreams with a tin of the shortbread cookies from ILoveSweets at Manufacturing Day 2014.RoundTable photo

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Jean Kroll, owner of Sugar & Spice Extraordinary Treats commercial bakery has teamed up with her neighbors at Have Dreams, a resource for those with autism, to provide internships for autistic adults.  The partnership that began two years ago after Ms. Kroll relocated her bakery to a commercial space in southwest Evanston has been, in Ms. Kroll’s words, a “win-win” for both her business and for the participants.

Her new landlord first introduced Ms. Kroll to the people at Have Dreams after moving her bakery into the 10,000-square-foot facility on Hartrey Avenue just off Dempster Street. The landlord suggested that her neighbors – the autistic men and women Have Dreams serves – could help build boxes for her baked goods.   

Despite having no previous experience working with people with disabilities, Ms. Kroll decided to invite a few men to help her construct boxes for her cookies and other signature treats.  

The men who came to help her charmed Ms. Kroll, but when Sara LaMontagne, adult services program coordinator at Have Dreams, asked if she had more ongoing work to offer the men, she replied with an emphatic “No.”

Ms. Kroll, who poured her life savings into her bakery and also studied economics, said she was not willing to risk the bottom line for philanthropy.

“I went home that night feeling terrible. How could I turn my back on these great people?” she said.

Around the same time, a client offered Ms. Kroll a significant amount of business. She wanted to take the job, but she could not afford the equipment to automate the work and she did not have the type of repetitive labor she needed.

“I realized that the men I had met from Have Dreams actually liked repetitive work, and they were good at it,” she said.  

She began a series of conversations with Ms. LaMontagne and other administrators from Have Dreams, and they soon came up with a plan to create a job-training program at the bakery. Thanks to a grant from the Coleman Foundation, they were able to develop a manufacturing curriculum based around the skills they would need to use in the bakery.

The grant also provided funding to hire a Master of Business Administration student from Northwestern University to collect data on the men’s productivity.  The purpose was to demonstrate whether or not there was a business case for hiring these adults.  In other words, if the bakery program succeeded, the data could be used to persuade other businesses to hire people with disabilities.

The Northwestern student followed the Have Dreams interns for about six weeks, tracking their productivity.  

“We set a baseline,” said Ms. Kroll.  “We said, in order for an employer to competitively hire these people, to add value to the business, they need to achieve certain productivity metrics.”

The results indicated they could work about 80% as quickly as a typical employee proving that they could, in fact, work productively and add value to a business.

“We were thrilled with the results,” said Ms. Kroll. “For me, 80% was a break- even point, which meant it would make sense to hire these men at an entry-level position and allow more experienced, higher-paid workers to focus on more difficult tasks.”

Last winter Ms. Kroll offered paid positions to a few men who completed the internship successfully.  She continues to work with Have Dreams to offer several 16-week internships throughout the year.  

“It’s been a wonderful partnership,” said Ms. LaMontagne. “Our goal has always been to help these men learn the skills they would need to work in any workplace – to teach them the skills that will allow them to get a job, keep a job and be successful throughout their life.”

While the interns spend about 15 hours a week working in the bakery, they spend another 15 hours a week working on soft skills at the Have Dreams facility just around the corner.

The curriculum in the classroom focuses less on bakery skills and more on general workplace skills, such as how to communicate with their superiors and peers, what it means to be productive, and how to work as a team.

Because Ms. Kroll can only hire a few people with autism, administrators at Have Dreams are reaching out to the community to find other businesses where graduates from the job-training program can work.

“Have Dreams is an amazing resource,” said Ms. Kroll. “It’s not just about placing a person in a job, but it’s about making sure it’s successful. They prepare the employer, they prepare the participant, and they make sure both have continued support. That is critical, and that is why we have been so successful.”