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How Chicago Coffee Is Helping People With Disabilities Get Much-Needed Jobs

By Ariel Cheung | March 18, 2016 8:39am
 Aspire CoffeeWorks is a special bran of coffee roasted at Metropolis that is made with the help of employees from the nonprofit Aspire Chicago. The organization helps people with special needs find employment in the city.
Aspire CoffeeWorks Adds Depth To Metropolis Mission
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AVONDALE — Some people think they need coffee to get get by — others actually do.

Six people with disabilities — a group that faces triple the unemployment rate of people without disabilities — are able to support themselves working for Aspire CoffeeWorks. The coffee brand provides jobs, and proceeds benefit Aspire, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities attain independent living, employment and education.

It's been seven years since Aspire partnered with Metropolis Coffee, 3057 N. Rockwell St., to create a brand that would generate jobs for people with disabilities and sales to help Aspire. But Aspire CoffeeWorks has really hit its stride in the past two months, its president said, thanks to a budding partnership with Canteen, an office coffee and vending supplier.

Targeting offices has been "a breakthrough" for Aspire CoffeeWorks, said Jim Kales, Aspire president and CEO. The "dramatic" growth pushed Metropolis to add a second production day dedicated to Aspire's four brews: Everyday Inspiration, Bold Ambition, Enterprising Espresso and Dream Big Decaf.

In Metropolis Coffee's new roastery in Avondale, Aspire employees like Bridget Gholston, 34, wrap labels and affix tin ties to the coffee bags, filling them with beans and packaging them for shipment.

Gholston worked at odd jobs at age 16, until her aunt heard about Aspire and encouraged Gholston to sign up. She started off with a cleaning job before switching to CoffeeWorks.

Gholston worked once a week at Metropolis and "she just completely blossomed," Kales said. Metropolis hired her away from Aspire four years ago, and Gholston now works at the roastery four days a week.

At the Metropolis roastery in Avondale, Bridget Gholston (r.) places labels on coffee bags for Aspire CoffeeWorks. The brand is sold in offices and some groceries stores to raise money for Aspire in Chicago. [Provided/Aspire]

"She even exceeded our own expectations, and it's a classic example of how people with disabilities do get pigeonholed," Kales said. "It doesn't mean she can't do incredible things."

Gholston has a huge smile for everyone at Metropolis, which "feels like home a little bit," she said.

"I wasn't always a happy person — I was an only child, so I just wasn't around a lot of people, basically," she said. While she became a huge movie and TV buff, "It took me working at Metropolis and CoffeeWorks to change me."

Now, "I really enjoy being happy," Gholston said.

Bruce Achilles, 60, helped with deliveries for Fannie May candy deliveries before he started working at Aspire CoffeeWorks in 2011.

"It's fun, and it's something different. It's good coffee, and I like helping people out," said Achilles, who loves watching Chicago sports and volunteering at his church in his spare time.

People with disabilities face 12.5 percent unemployment, compared with 4.9 percent for people without disabilities as of February, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Aspire helps 400 adults and 600 children each year, working to include people with disabilities in the community and provide ways to improve their independence. Aspire offers job training, community homes and programs geared toward independent living. Its CareerLink program works with Office Depot to provide internships and training in retail or warehouse distribution.

Aspire CoffeeWorks is its only business venture.

"We're not your typical charity, because we're more entrepreneurial," Kales said. "We've really had to do that because with the problems in the state of Illinois, we just can't rely on the state to provide for these services anymore."

When Aspire reached out in 2009, Metropolis was already looking for a way to use "the power of coffee" to benefit nonprofits, said co-owner Tony Dreyfuss, who had "no hesitation at all" in agreeing to a partnership.

"It's kind of a no-brainer: you get great coffee, it costs the same, and by purchasing it, you're creating positive opportunities for adults and children with disabilities," Dreyfuss said. "All that, plus it's fair trade and organic."

The Metropolis Coffee roastery opened at 3057 N. Rockwell St. in September. The 18,000 square-foot warehouse is part of a complex that will soon be home to Metropolian Brewery and other businesses. [DNAinfo/Ariel Cheung]

Metropolis roasts 1 million pounds of coffee each year, so the CoffeeWorks business only makes up roughly 10 percent of its production. But with the new focus on serving offices, CoffeeWorks orders are surging.

Even better, more companies are asking how they can include Aspire employees in their work place.

"The coffee is kind of a gateway drug to say, 'Try inclusion' and asking these companies to employ people with disabilities," Kales said.

For Dreyfuss, working with Aspire and keeping the production line filled with people instead of automated machines is simply "a choice" Metropolis wants to make.

"When you play a record instead of digital music, it's a process," Dreyfuss said in comparison. "Our process is a little more labor-intensive, but I think it adds value to the product in an intangible way."

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